A Summer of Drowning

John Burnside

First Sentence:     Late in May 2001, about ten days after I saw him for the last time, Mats Sigfridsson was hauled out of Malangen Sound, a few miles down the coast from here.

I read Glister by John Burnside a few years ago and I’m still not fully sure whether I liked it or not. I could see the talent Burnside had (talent recently acknowledged by the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry ) and parts of it really shone, but as a whole it left me a little cold. This book is set mainly on the Norwegian island of Kvaløya in the Arctic Circle and as such, you would expect this would also leave me cold, but in an altogether different way! The book itself though, I loved. Liv is the narrator, and while she is 28, she is recalling events that happened a long time ago when she was still a teenager, and as such inhabits that former self for much of the book. Time itself is a big concern in this novel and there are instances when it seems that events are taking place outside of time:

Out there, in the busy world, the clocks are ticking, but we are mostly alone on our Whale Island and, whether it’s white night or winter dark, there’s not much here to betray the passing of clock-time.

Another major preoccupation in the book is the environment itself, Liv’s surroundings. There is talk of ‘reading by the midnight sun’ (the midnattsol), or of wandering around the barren Sound, being alone in a hytte (a small hut) or simply sitting enjoying the perpetual gloaming. This sense of place only serves to heighten our reading experience. The main thrust of the story is about Liv and her mother at a particular point in their lives. Liv lives with her mother, the notoriously reclusive painter Angelika Rossdal, and growing up she never knew her father. Then, one summer, she begins to find out about him. It is this same summer when people start drowning very close to their remote home, and once these things happen, things will never be the same again. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is quirky, beautifully written, quite plot-driven and, at times, utterly bizarre and unsettling. If you can find the time, I recommend you give it a read.

(Not that finding time is ever a problem, or a cause of concern, right?)…

Panic about time most of all. The way it starts to move differently when you sit a while, and everything slows, till it feels like it could stop at any moment. The way it pools and stalls in the middle of a summer’s morning, or in the white gloaming, so you want to go and stare at a clock, just to watch the second hand turning.

* * * *

Last Sentence:      I know this – and I spend the best part of my time making such maps as I can, maps of the world as it is between one moment and the next, charging myself with the impossible task of finding, among the pencil marks and shading, some cold angle of meadow or fjord where old Bieggaalmaj, or some other restless and hungry god, gathers them all in, one after another, Mats and Harald, Martin Crosbie and Kyrre Opdahl, the girl Maia and the huldra she became, hidden away in the folds of the wind, where only the most careful storytellers could find them.

Last Sentence explained:     So, by then end of the book Liv has traveled to London to meet her father, Arild Frederik, for the first time. She never gets the chance to meet him however as he dies just before she gets there. While all this is going on, strange things are afoot back home. The two brothers, Mats (mentioned in the first sentence) and Harald have both drowned mysteriously close together and Liv turns to her ‘father-figure-type-friend’ Kyrre Opdahl for an explanation. Kyrre is a believer in folk tales and legends, and he is convinced that the drownings were caused by a huldra. He is also convinced that local girl Maia is the huldra, a conviction that is reinforced when Maia befriends blow-in Martin Crosbie just before he disappears. Liv herself believes she sees Maia put Martin under a spell and lead him out to water but at this stage even what Liv tells us is called into doubt, as this all happens after her trip to London and she herself acknowledges her recollections cannot be trusted:

I could think of no other explanation than enchantment and, while I realise now that, when someone claims they can think of no other explanation, it’s only because they haven’t really considered the alternatives[…]

At the very end, in a deeply unsettling scene, it appears that Kyrre Opdahl violently kills Maia, as none of these people are ever seen again. All of this is suggested however, and we can never fully be sure if the events actually happened or if Liv has hallucinated them…


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