Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Headline Review (1 Mar 2012)
Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel.
Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos compiled by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary.
It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen.
Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.
In the prologue we meet Beth’s mother, Marika. She takes down the book to read on a night of snow and escapes to the sun-filled days. The reader knows she feels ambivalent “For when she turns the pages she is a time-traveller. When she turns the pages she is bound in chains.” On being called back to Marika’s life in the present, the reader is made aware that between the pages is everything that is lost to her.
Chapter One builds a picture of Beth’s life now. How her father was when she was a child and the terms of their relationship now. Her father is going to visit her, it’s not a planned visit so is totally out of character for him … we get a deeper glimpse into their relationship in the now as Beth prepares for that visit. His purpose is to give her the parcel with the Hungarian stamps.
In the second chapter we get to know Marika and the first family journey to her homeland in Hungary. It is the first time she has been back since she left with her own parents when she was ten. The author shows the reader how Beth’s mother belongs and is in her element. Beth and her father, David, are outsiders. The juxtaposition of both lives is fascinating! Hauntingly poignant when your roots are in a different country and you still belong to that land … how can you live a life that’s so far removed? Heart-wrenching choices.
While Beth is sitting in Victoria Park, London, the reader journeys alongside her into those six summers of visits to Hungary interspersed with moments of reality. We are completely immersed in the world as it was at that time. Those sun-drenched summers are portrayed with life and zest. Beth often compares herself to her mother as she tries to find her own place of belonging. The writing is evocative and the author uses figurative language to draw the reader’s imagination (I loved Hall’s writing style). As each year Beth is older, the author captures exactly the growth of the child from the innocence of the early days to the hedonistic teenager.
It is such a vibrant world. I experienced a different culture and so was also able to expand my own horizons. It is clear that the author has spent time in Hungary and has drawn on her own experiences.
The other characters – Zoltan, her mother’s partner; Tamas, the boy next door; were very real to me. Emylia Hall magically weaves their personalities from their actions – we are shown rather than told, which if you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know I love!
I didn’t see the crisis coming! Of course we know something brutal happens from the synopsis but not only was I so caught up in the experience of those Hungarian summers, I would never have been able to predict what was coming. There is only one clue to what it could be but the author cleverly drops this in at a very emotional moment when the reader isn’t concentrating on the why, only what is. I was stunned. I cried. I think this shows how emotionally involved I was in this world!
The sadness of the book coming into Beth’s life is the timing.
“How would it have been, if things had been different?” Beth asks her father.
The beauty of the book is that it unlocks Beth’s soul and allows her to reclaim a large part of her childhood that had previously been lost.
“Sometimes if you don’t go backwards, you can’t move forwards” Marika once said when she was trying to explain why she’d returned to Hungary.
The truths and honesty her father shares with her also allow for the healing to take place… so alongside the bone-aching sorrow is the chance to become whole.
There is only one possible rating I can give to The Book of Summers as it has touched me so deeply:
I predict The Book of Summers will become widely read both at an individual level and with book groups. I will certainly be looking out for other novels by this author.
I read this uncorrected proof as part of The Real Readers programme (please see sidebar).