Living an almost solitary life with her uncommunicative, heavy drinking father, Helen's life is quiet and lonely. With O level exams, and the stresses and unpleasantness of school behind, summer seems to stretch limitlessly before her; at first an appealing prospect, but soon boredom starts to creep in. Then the Dover family move in down the road - an unconventional, seemingly-carefree family with no fixed roots, they fill the canal-side house with music, children and laughter - and Helen falls under their spell. There are similarities in their circumstances - their father is absent - perhaps having just 'left' in the way Helen's mother has, perhaps having disappeared in more suspicious circumstances - and their mother keeps mainly to her own bedroom and is as silent and neglectful as Helen's father, leaving teenagers Seth and Victoria, and the younger twins, Pippa and Will, very much to their own devices, but whereas Helen's home is dull and empty, theirs seems over-flowing with life. Attracted to them, both individually and collectively, Helen is soon a regular visitor, her day not complete without them, but as the endless hot days unwind something sinister works itself into the mix. Long hot summers can never last forever - but this one is heading for a disastrous ending
There's a certain sort of mid-teenage point in life when summer seems like it could last forever - a few years earlier you don't appreciate the spread of six weeks freedom ahead; a few years older, and autumn seems already visible at the end of July - and this is what Sarah Jasmon has captured so well - long, lazy, hot days of a summer that feels like it could never end. Atmosphere alone isn't enough to make a story and mixed in with it is a darker thread of hidden secrets. The author intersperses the events of 1983 with a first person narrative from the adult Helen's point of view, so the reader is aware that the summer came to a climatic end, but, as Helen has no memory of the events, how and why remains a mystery. Enough is revealed to tempt the reader, and keep them hooked, without giving the game away.
The friendship between Helen and Victoria is the hub around which events revolve - a slightly one-sided affair as Helen in her loneliness is more in need of Victoria than vice versa, it's intense in the way that only teenage friendships can be - but all the characterisation is superb; from the slightly prim and proper Helen, to the free and easy Dover family, fly-in-the-ointment Moira with her stroppy activism, and Helen's father with his despair and mood swings, they all feel like real people with lives of their own outside the pages of the book.
The whole bohemian atmosphere instantly brought to mind two of my favourite novels of recent years - Emylia Hall's The Book of Summers and Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray. All three share that nostalgia for an idealised time in the past - a time which has its unacknowledged dark undercurrents just waiting to surface - and slightly off-beat larger-than-life families. If you've read one of these and loved it, I definitely recommend the others.
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Black Swan (Transworld)Genre - adult fiction, coming of age