I first read Vanessa Lafaye's Summertime in March 2014, and when I shut my eyes I can still recall with perfect clarity one of its final, most brutal, upsetting scenes. But more on that in a moment.
Summertime is set in 1935, in a small town in Florida. The town is divided by race, while just outside the borders of the community is a settlement of veterans, heroes from the First World War who have been failed by their country on their return home. As tempers and tensions rise in the hot weather, a hurricane of devastating power approaches, intent on destroying everything in its path.
While the characters of Summertime are fictional, the hurricane it depicts, the racial tensions, and the fact that soldiers back from war were forced to live in prison-like camps, are all very, very real. Yet it's a period in American history that is largely hidden. Summertime exposes that period and its horrendous events - that the soldiers who fought in the war for America were then abandoned, and during this hurricane were left to die. Another mark of a great book is that it makes you want to learn, and Summertime makes you want to go away and learn more about this hurricane, these men, and this world.
To make us feel, Lafaye creates a cast of characters who are sympathetic, loveable, despicable, naive and ignorant. Central to these is Missy, a young black servant who is in love with Henry, a soldier who now he is back from war is closed off from everything, although something in him still wants to connect to Missy. The pair's love story is a beautiful, gentle tale in amongst the chaos and volume of the other plot points.
While characters like Missy, Henry, and his older sister Selma represent the 'downstairs' class, upstairs, among others, are the privileged Campbells and Kincaids, who are proof that money, success and social standing don't buy happiness. Hilda Kincaid and Noreen Campbell are both in unhappy marriages, and even though they initially come across as spoilt and unsympathetic, as do their husbands, Lafaye crafts them as rounded characters, who we learn to feel for, and even come to like.
The biggest character in Summertime is the hurricane itself. It hangs over the whole town, with some characters believing in its powers and others not. It is initially a shadow, before becoming a fully formed malevolent being. And it is responsible for some of the most shocking scenes of the book, which takes me back to the beginning of this review. There is one image, after the hurricane has passed, that is so vivid I could picture exactly what Lafaye was describing. I can, as I said before, close my eyes and summon up the pictures created by that description.
Summertime is that novel that reminds you why you love to read. It hammers home that distressing stories can be told with beautiful writing and be filled with hope. To put it simply, it's a book that makes you feel deeply, and is worth every painful emotion.
*Summertime is released on January 15, 2015.
How I got this book: Fromthe publisher, Orion. This did not affect my review.