A Summer of Drowning

A Summer of Drowning, by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 336 pages

Scottish writer John Burnside first came to prominence in the 1990s with a series of critically acclaimed poetry collections. Now, with his eighth work of fiction, Burnside has established himself as a first rate novelist.

A Summer of Drowning is set in the spectral beauty of the far north of Norway. When renowned painter Angelika Rossdal moved to the island of Kvaløya in the Arctic Circle, her three-year-old daughter Liv had difficulty forming relationships with her peers. As she grew up Liv opted to spend her time away from her mother, choosing instead to spend time with an elderly neighbour, Kyrre Opdahl, who each weekend over coffee in his ramshackle kitchen, would tell her folk stories of trolls and sprites.

Now 28, Liv narrates the story of one summer a decade before when two brothers drown in the Malangen Sound. Shortly after this tragedy, Kyrre tells Liv a story about the “huldra”, a beautiful girl who tempts young men to their death. When a third person perishes, Liv begins to suspect the involvement of her classmate Maia.

Liv’s voice is supple and mysterious: “I like to think the sea took pity on the puny child it had killed, and was in the process of carrying it home, when a fisherman caught sight of that … white shock of hair through the summer gloaming”. Burnside’s great skill is capturing the texture of life on the remote island in the far north, and the routines and motivations of its inhabitants.

At the novel’s climax Kyrre leads Maia to his holiday cottage. Liv hears a “wild cry laced with horror … the scream of a girl or of an old man”. Burnside holds us between two poles of revelation: is Maia the “huldra” or just a girl with “a talent for tragedy’’?

In this beautifully sustained novel madness, mystery and myth-making collide. Burnside has an eerie attunement to the ineffable nature of existence and the stories by which we navigate and seek to explain it, what Liv calls “loopholes of havoc in the fabric of reality” as she recounts the events and the tragic culmination of that “long white summer of stories no one could possibly believe”.

Adam O’Riordan’s debut collection of poems ‘In the Flesh’ is published by Chatto & Windus

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