It’s as difficult to explain what A Summer Of Drowning is about as it is to explain what a poem is about. You have to experience its other-worldly atmosphere in which time and space and the “illusion of order” that we take for reality are made fluid and permeable.
In Kyrre’s house there were shadows in the folds of every blanket, imperceptible tremors in every glass of water or bowl of cream set out on a table, infinitesimal loopholes of havoc in the fabric of reality that could spill loose and find you as the first hint of a storm finds a rower out on the open sea. (7)
Within this shimmering setting, in the strange light of the midnight sun, is the story of Liv and her mother, a painter who has chosen to live on the remote Arctic island of Kvaløya in the pursuit of a purer and purer focus on her work, which has moved from portraiture to landscapes in which any human figure is ghostly, almost indecipherable. She knows, says Liv, To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame, is the highest form of art.
We have to wonder about the cost of this artistic integrity. Liv has lived in this isolation since she was three, and loves it. She recoils from the entanglements of human relationships – I don’t like entwined, I like intact. She observes others at a distance but can’t cope with any demand for human closeness. In the few days she spends in London where she has travelled unwillingly to meet the father she’s never known, she is in an almost hallucinogenic state of dissociation.
Liv is most at home with Kyrre, the keeper of knowledge of the spirits of the island, that other knowledge that cannot be explained rationally, the knowledge that seems to lie behind the drownings and disappearances that are the centre of the narrative. This is the knowledge always flickering around the beautifully-observed “fabric of reality”, revealed in tiny flashes through the gaps in the fabric. At the end of the book, we’re in the same situation as Liv, haunted Because of what I have seen and can’t explain.
It’s very hard to balance a novel between the solidity of the “real” world and the evanescence of the world of dream, illusion and the supernatural. John Burnside, as good a novelist as he is a poet, achieves it. One of his favorite sayings, I’ve read, from the poet Charles Wright, is “The other world is here, just under our fingertips“. Visually, atmospherically and psychologically rich, it’s a book that will stay in your memory and your dreams.