The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon, is simmering, evocative and charged with an undercurrent of apprehension. The author perfectly captures the concerns of the teenage protagonist, Helen, as she struggles to deal with her parents’ separation and rejection by her peers. When the bohemian Dover family appear on Helen’s doorstep it is no surprise that she is drawn to them. Their friendship will prove devastating for both families.
Helen is sixteen years old and is looking forward to a summer of peace and freedom. Home life has been chaotic since her mother left, her father seeking solace in drink. Helen welcomes the cessation of their bitter rows, and the relaxation of her mother’s strictly imposed orderliness. She is angry and lonely but also relieved.
Lying on the grass in her garden by the canal Helen wonders how she will fill the balmy days ahead. Her question is answered when a young girl unexpectedly appears in her hedge. Thus she meets the Dovers, who she discovers have recently moved into a nearby cottage, and is drawn to their enigmatic lives.
Victoria Dover is of a similar age to Helen and they soon become friends. They are not, however, equals. Victoria relishes her dominance, forever pushing at Helen’s trained reticence. As the summer progresses Helen ingratiates herself with the whole family before Victoria starts to push her away.
The author intersperses the story of the summer of 1983 with a narrative set thirty years later. Forty-six year old Helen spots a poster on the wall of new art gallery advertising an exhibition of photographs by award winning Victoria Dover. We learn that she has neither seen nor heard from any of the Dover family since that fateful summer, a summer that has scarred her life.
Helen’s life pivots on a night near the end of the summer, which she can barely remember. As the tension builds the reader knows that some tragedy is about to unfold. The denouement does not disappoint.
The byline on the cover of this book reads ‘One day she was there… And the next she was gone’. I did not feel that this represented what the story was about. It is a coming of age tale; it was not just Victoria that Helen lost.
It was good to be reminded that in 1983 there could be ramshackle cottages by an overgrown and neglected canal, before developers saw potential and tidied nature away. Likewise children could run free, time unfilled by planned activities not viewed as wasted. It is redolent of a time that is gone.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed, shocking as they were. I do not quite understand why she did not seek answers sooner. Perhaps this is the point. The denouement suggests that it was everyone else’s selfish inability to understand Helen’s needs which led to the cataclysmic outcome.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group