Tom Darling’s second novel, Summer, is the story of teenage Grace Hooper and her nine-year-old brother Billy, who arrive on their grandfather’s farm as orphans, their parents having been killed in an accident on holiday. School will not begin again for several months; until then, the children face a summer in an environment far removed from the London they know (underlining their sense of disorientation, it is never clear just where the farm is), with a relative who might as well be a stranger (and, indeed, is referred to almost exclusively in the book as ‘the old man’).
Summer is a quiet book that takes time to unfold, often telling its story in the gaps between scenes as well as within the scenes themselves. It moves between the present, the past, and the old man’s dreams, generally maintaining the same tone. These techniques can be effective; the children’s memories feel like the mirages they are, aspects of the present rather than an equal reality; and, though it’s evident from the grandfather’s bad dreams that something terrible has happened on the farm previously, the reader has to piece that together over time. However, the novel also feels a bit too diffuse; its different narrative components are not tied together as closely as they might be, and some key points may be lost amongst the whole.
But what Darling does particularly well in Summer is delineate the change in his protagonists. At first, it’s Billy who takes instinctively to the farm environment, and his grandfather is only too happy to accommodate his interest. Billy’s existence on the farm becomes almost elemental, and he spends more time in one of his outside hideaways than in the farmhouse. Grace, in contrast, is more cast adrift at first, but eventually comes to her own instinctive—though subtly different—understanding of her surroundings; her relationship with the farm is mediated through human contact more than is Billy’s, and the way she ultimately views the place is more ordered. It’s in details like this, and as a study of character, that Summer shines most strongly.
David Hebblethwaite blogs at Follow the Thread.