Book Review: The Summer of Secrets

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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

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Book Review: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go

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If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, by Judy Chicurel, is a coming of age story set in 1970’s Long Island in the USA. Despite being populated by chain smoking, hard drinking, drug taking teenagers it has a poignancy that transcends the antipathy these activities may evoke in some readers who have perhaps led more sedate lives. The characters are universal in their hopes and dreams for a better future, their feelings and frustrations portrayed vividly despite the veneer of their rebellious lifestyle.

The protagonist, Katie, is the adopted daughter of parents who frown upon many of her choices, from friends, to habits, to the places she chooses to hang out. In her desire to find a place where she can belong she has taken to frequenting the down at heel cafes and bars, a result of the economic fragility of an area abandoned by the rich when they discovered cheap air travel. The story is set in the summer when Katie and her friends graduate from High School. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives.

Katie has grown up in this area. She has had friendships at elementary school with the Puerto Ricans who are now drug dealers. She has watched from afar the privileged Dunes with their cashmere sweaters, their clothes never to big, their teeth never crooked.

“Those girls from the Dunes! We envied them, hated them, and wanted to be them, isn’t that always the way? It’s an old song, because those girls are everywhere, in every story, in every life; fairy tale princesses […] Prettier, brighter, lovelier than everyone else, or at least they think so, and they are never fearful of ridicule or laughter or life.”

Katie and her eclectic group of working class compatriots dream of escape from parental displeasure and the confines of a community where they are so well known. Some dream of marriage and babies, a fate which several achieve early. Others eschew this result of unwise couplings seeking abortions. Sex is a hot topic of conversation as they make out on the beach or in the back of cars. This is teenage life at its most raw.

Alongside the growing up and getting out is the shadow of Vietnam which only those who have experienced it can fully understand. The vets are welcomed home but then silently resented when they fail to slot back into the places they once held. Katie has long held a candle for one such boy, Luke, who she dreams of seducing. As she bides her time, believing this summer to be a beginning rather than an ending, she watches as her friends, one by one, move on with their lives.

There were things about this story that I felt were overdone: the constant smoking, the drinking and drugs; but what do I know of the reality of the time?

However, the teenage dreams were memorably intangible yet painfully authentic. The generational disconnect, the importance of friends and the aching need for something more were evoked perfectly.

I loved the denouement. The author wove together all the stories told; treasured memories of experiences, good and bad, that can never be repeated. Who does not look back on this period in their lives with both fondness and regret? Katie’s story reminds the reader of the transience of the present, no matter how important it may seem at the time.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.