An Arctic Turn

This is my review of A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside.

At first I thought this would be a tale of suicides by drowning and disappearances with a possibly supernatural cause, fed by the folktales of northern Norway and the setting on Kvaløya, a real vaguely clover leaf shaped island west of Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle where in summer the midnight sun drives people to insomnia, hallucinations, even madness.

Then I decided it is an intense psychological study of Liv, a highly intelligent, observant , introspective girl brought up in unusual isolation by her mother, a talented but selfish and coldly objective artist.

In the end, I could not ignore Liv's conviction that an evil spirit or "huldra" is at work in the body of a local girl. Yet, some events remain unexplained or ambiguous, so that you can, if you choose, attribute them to Liv's possible descent into madness.

What impressed me most is the description of Kvaløya, with its sense of the suspension of time as we know it – there is a good deal in this book about reality being an illusion and vice versa, made credible in this location. Burnside is also very skilled at encouraging us to reflect on the nature of our existence – at first it seems odd, even shocking, that a bright girl like Liv has no friends, wanders about for hours on end doing nothing in particular, but her reflections help us to see that in many ways our frantically busy, occupied, materialistic lives may lack real meaning.

Burnside's poetry gives his prose great intensity. There are many striking images: the arctic terns which follow the sun, dipping into the water for silver fish, the blurring of the land, sea and sky into the same colour, a spirit conjured by a folktale evident through "the tremor in a glass", and so on.

When it comes to the analysis of thoughts, with every look and phrase examined from many angles, yet much left cryptic or open to question, his writing can be a little too much to take. Yet, the intensity, combined with some repetition, contribute to the hypnotic quality of the writing.

Minor criticisms are the tendency to tell us what is going to happen, the prologue which seems to me like the statutory hook required by a publisher – and in this case quite misleading as to the nature of the novel – and the shortcomings of the "dramatic climax".

Burnside is a talented writer and much of this is a gripping read, although I felt that the mixture of the pragmatic with the supernatural ultimately does not quite work. If nothing else, he has introduced me to the wonderful paintings of Harald Sohlberg.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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