A Month of Reading – July 2021

I have been very, very late in putting up my July reading post for various reasons. It was not a great month in terms of quantity of books read, I barely managed three. But that’s also because I was occupied by family stuff which affected my concentration quite a bit. However, all the three books were great, so definitely a good month quality-wise. Without further ado, here is a look at the books…

THE PROMISE – Damon Galgut

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I hope the book goes on to win the Booker Prize.

THREE SUMMERS – Margerita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us – the sexually bold Maria, the beautiful and distant Infanta, the imaginative and rebellious Katerina, also the narrator of the story.

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

THE LIGHT YEARS (VOL. 1 OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES) – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in England just a few months before the advent of the Second World War. It is a novel teeming with characters providing a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family over a course of two summers spent in the Sussex countryside.

William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. His wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.

The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.

The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When the book opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is much younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. To complicate matters, Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.

Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.

Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from Rachel and her family out of pride.

The children, meanwhile, are absorbed in their own world, made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.

At more than 500 pages, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace with the result that each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of the book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the primary characters.

Reading The Light Years was an immersive experience – it’s an evocative read with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature.

Observing the Cazalets enjoying their annual summer holiday is akin to settling in with them for a nice, comfort read. The sumptuous country meals are tastefully described and I came across food items I had not heard of before – Charlotte Russe cake and angels on horseback, particularly, come to mind.

But despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel. Against this broader landscape, what makes this novel so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…all of this is gradually revealed to the reader as the novel progresses.

In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Light Years is a brilliant read, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Can’t wait to begin the second installment of the series – Marking Time.

That’s it for July. August is Women in Translation Month and I am currently in the midst of reading A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo and An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, both excellent so far.

Three Summers – Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

August is Women in Translation Month, and I am happy that the first novel I chose to read, a foray into Greece, turned out to be such a good one, not surprising given that it’s from the ever reliable NYRB Classics.

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Set in a village a few miles from Athens, the first chapter is a picture of idyll – the sisters lying in a hayfield, the sky, the wildflowers and the three of them all melted into one. It’s the time for intense conversations and sharing secrets and this summer Katerina, who was otherwise excluded because she was the youngest, will also be part of her sisters’ confidences.

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us. Maria is sexually bold and the nucleus of attraction for most of the local boys including Marios Parigori, a budding doctor, who is passionately in love with her. But just as she is forward in acting on her desires, Maria displays an equal keenness for the traditional ideas of marriage and motherhood.

Infanta is a stunning beauty but distant, it is very difficult to fathom what’s going on inside her head. Inexpressive yet fearless, Infanta is initially drawn to Marios but later strikes up a friendship with Nikitas fuelled by their passion for horseriding. As their friendship deepens, Nikitas begins to harbor romantic feelings for Infanta, which both excite and torment him, since Infanta remains withdrawn and unwilling to express herself.

Our narrator, Katerina, is imaginative, rebellious and prone to throwing tantrums. Katerina loves being with her sisters but also treasures her time alone when she can lose herself in her thoughts and conjure up an imaginary world influenced by the books she reads.

When the sun’s glare tired my eyes and my limbs felt as if I had drunk sweet wine, I would go to the barn to find quiet, a quiet full of shade and the smell of hay. People and faraway places filled my quiet time there: coloured ribbons blowing in the wind, orange seas, Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Odysseus on the islands of Caplypso and Circe.

She falls deeply in love with David, an astronomer, who is temperamentally very different, but reciprocates her sentiments.

While Three Summers burns brightly with light, laughter and innocence, there are also darker currents that simmer underneath. This becomes apparent when we are provided a glimpse into friends and family whose lives are intricately woven with those of the three sisters. Indeed, through their stories, various themes are explored throughout the novel – marriage, motherhood, divorce, abandonment, abuse, sexual awakening, freedom and the bond between siblings.

Their mother Anna, recently divorced from their father Miltos, is beset by bouts of loneliness and sadness although she maintains a dignified presence. Miltos, a banker, never had much time for his wife engrossing himself instead in his hobbies. But despite the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Maria, Infanta and Katerina bear them no ill will.

Anna was also nice. But ever since she got divorced she didn’t laugh much and she would only talk about her property and sew.

Early on in the novel, the clandestine past of their Polish grandmother (Anna’s mother) fascinates the three sisters, especially Katerina. When a musician visits their home, the Polish grandmother is so besotted with him that she abandons her husband (Dimitris, the Grandfather), and two daughters (Anna and Theresa) and runs off with him to travel the world. Her betrayal means that it is taboo to mention her name in the house, but Katerina can’t help wondering if her mother has been traumatized by that incident, and whether she and her sisters have not inherited some of their grandmother’s traits. Indeed, the Polish grandmother is a force in the novel although she’s never actually present.

Her sister Aunt Theresa, a painter dabbling in landscapes, portraits and still life, has not been lucky with men either. Katerina learns of her aunt’s history, which is marked by the one disturbing incident when she is raped by the man she was destined to marry. It leaves her scarred for life and understandably unable to form any attachments later.

Laura Parigori, Maria’s mother-in-law, is for the most part in her own world, stuck in her past where she revelled as part of an elite Corfu society.

Old memories like sunken ships at the bottom of the sea suddenly rose up from the depths of her soul: hazy, trembling, a broken steering wheel, a bent rudder, masts jutting into space, the drowned treading water.

But somewhere, Laura is also unhappy with her present circumstances and is possibly rebelling inside – rebelling against her womanly fate, the desire for something else dominant, something impossible, something she won’t dare do.

Then there’s Andreas, the ship captain, a character introduced later in the book who epitomizes the ideas of independence, adventure and travel as he sails the world to exotic destinations, never rooted to one place or one person.

Sexual tension throbs throughout the book. Prior to her marriage, Maria’s sexual encounter with a farmer’s son is charged with electricity, Nikitas’ growing passion for Infanta is thwarted by things left unsaid, and Katerina, overwhelmed by her desire for David, is overcome by jealousy when she observes his closeness with Laura Parigori.

As Maria settles down into her new role of a wife and mother, we observe a perceptible shift in the relationship between the siblings. Their bond is as strong as ever and yet things are not the same, at least not since Maria’s altered situation.

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own.

Will Maria find contentment in marriage and motherhood? Will the relationship between her and her husband transition into deep companionship when the first throes of romance are over?  Will Infanta ever devote herself to one man? Will Katerina settle down with David or will her desire to travel the world take over?

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

As the novel progresses, the tempestuous Katerina will unravel the mystery of her mother’s best kept secret, will gain some perspective on the life changing decision of marriage, and will hole up in her room for a week so that she can calmly make a choice that will alter the course of her life. But whatever the future holds for the three sisters, Katerina acknowledges that “certainly those three summers will play a role in our lives. I remember that first day of that first summer when we bought our big straw hats.”

A Month of Reading – January 2021

Here’s what I read in January – a mix of translated literature, early 20th century lit and a fascinating memoir. It was a superb reading month, and I thought all the books were terrific. Indeed, a great start to 2021. It was also one of those rare months where I wrote reviews on every book I read.

So, without much ado, here are the books. For the detailed reviews, you can click on the links.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

This is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. This is an important book that needs to be read despite the brutal subject matter.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek.

All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

A poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a deeply moving novel that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. I loved this one.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

That’s it for January.  I have started this month with L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Plus, February is dedicated to #ReadIndies hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I have some books I plan to read published by indies such as Archipelago Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Charco Press to name a few.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

More Was Lost is an absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. It is also a fascinating look at history, particularly the dramatic upheavals in the Central and Eastern European region, and the profound and life altering impact it had on the people living there.

At the tender age of nineteen, Eleanor Stone comes from a privileged family – her father is a Naval officer and a cultural attaché, while her mother is a novelist. While on holiday with her mother in Europe, she meets Zsiga Perényi, a poor Hungarian baron in his late thirties, at a diplomatic dinner. They fall in love, marry in Venice, and set up home in the Perényi estate in rural Ruthenia.

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he (Zsiga) said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could.”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s mother is initially hesitant about the match given the cultural differences, and the Perényi’s impoverishment, but Eleanor knows what she wants and is firm in her decision.

The Perényis do not have a steady flow of income, but they are blessed with a sprawling estate in Ruthenia, complete with land, forest and a vineyard. Eleanor and Zsiga realize that managing this estate is the only way for them to build a life together and keep the money flowing. And that is exactly what they do.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything.

In the first half of the memoir, Eleanor gives us a detailed view of how she goes about adjusting to her new circumstances, and it makes for riveting reading.  Communication is the biggest hurdle, so she begins to study Hungarian. She learns to navigate the various intricacies of running the household – growing and organizing food supplies, and having discussions with the cook regarding daily meals. She takes an interest in the interiors, decorating the house with beautiful fabrics and furniture.

Since Zsiga has his hands full supervising the farm, vineyard and forest, Eleanor takes it upon herself to manage the park, orchard and vegetable cellar among other things. She also adjusts to the Hungarian system of paying by barter instead of cash. Then there is all the socializing to do – paying various house calls, and in turn entertaining guests at their home.

In the midst of all this, we are given a fascinating insight on the broader political landscape at the time, and the shifting, nebulous boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe. The Perényi’s estate is situated in rural Ruthenia, a region which belonged to Hungary before the First World War but was doled out to Czechoslovakia in the territorial distribution that followed. This is a wound that continues to irk the Hungarians – they are obsessed about reclaiming most, if not all, of the regions that were taken away from them.

Thus, the Perényis are Hungarians, but live under Czech rule. Given that the Czechs are excellent administrators as compared to the laidback, inefficient Hungarians, Zsiga and Eleanor have no problems adapting to the Czech way of doing things. But since the Hungarians don’t look upon the Czechs too kindly, the Perényis’ dilemma is not lost on Eleanor.

As Hitler begins to frighteningly advance across Europe by capturing territories and the prospect of war looms large, Zsiga and Eleanor are confronted with unthinkable possibility of losing their estate and home. Eleanor expertly conveys the complex political environment at the time, most notably what she calls the ‘schizophrenia of Hungarian politics.’ Czechoslovakia enters the war against Germany, but Hungary allies itself with Hitler because he promises the Hungarians that they can conquer their lost territories. So, despite Zsiga and Eleanor’s respect and admiration for the Czechs, they worry about being considered ‘foreign subjects’ if Ruthenia is not returned to Hungary. They increasingly realize that Hitler dissolving Czechoslovakia is the only way for the Perényis to cling to their estate, and this dilemma torments them greatly because none of the scenarios are ideal.

Clearly, the fast-changing dynamics in Europe will severely test the mettle of the Perényis when it comes to defending their home and their marriage. Will they emerge triumphant?

I loved everything about this memoir. What was immediately remarkable to me was Eleanor Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty – would have been extremely challenging, but she does it with aplomb. I was impressed by her steadfast commitment to making her new life work.

More Was Lost, then, is a memoir expansive in scope and incredibly intimate at the same time, as it brilliantly captures the complex minefield of European politics through the lens of one family’s experiences. Perenyi’s prose is lovely, suffused with grace, charm and wit. She is candid, straightforward with an eye for detail, and the first half of the memoir is peppered with a plethora of anecdotes that makes for delicious reading, while the last section is especially poignant.

She excels at evoking mood and atmosphere through lush descriptions of the indoors and the outdoors – the sumptuous interiors of grand homes, the snow laden vistas, the stark contrast in the Czech and Hungarian countryside, and overall beauty of Europe with its glamour, languor and gaiety.

The park was perhaps twenty acres, bounded on three sides by the dead branch of a river. “You’ll come for the duck-shooting,” he (Cousin Laci) told me. “There are hundreds of birds down there.” There were poplars along the banks, and their branches were filled with crows, cawing into the spring wind. From the end of the park we saw the house with the pillars and the back terrace. I thought as I so often had before how much these country places in Hungary fitted the descriptions of old Russia in Turgenev or Chekhov.

It’s a narrative tinged with nostalgia, humour, sadness, a window to a lost and vanished world, a remembrance of the halcyon days of Europe when it thrived in all its glory, a touching tale of how much was gained and how much more was lost.

The later period of the photographs, the letters, and the small familiar objects was near enough to touch. These were the last remnants of that Eden-like existence in the country, occupied with the transportation of lapdogs, walks in the garden to pick strawberries in the summer, expeditions with the children, the governesses, and the tutors to a cave on the mountain, picnics, family dinners and whist games, all the activities of that delicious and vanished world.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

It was good to read a Tove Jansson novel after a long time. The first book of hers I read – The True Deceiver – was dark and brilliant and it had found a place on my Best Books of 2011 list. It had also won the Best Translated Book Award that year. Having seen a lot of love for The Summer Book, it seemed like the obvious next choice, and I can now say that I join the chorus of praise for this novel.

The Summer Book is a lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.

Sophia, her father and her grandmother spend the summer on an unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia is young with her whole life spread before her, a life that teems with infinite possibilities. The grandmother is in her twilight years with decades of experience under her belt but now weighed down by physical impediments. Sophia is wild, impetuous and prone to bouts of anger, while the grandmother is wise, unsentimental and sometimes cranky.

But the two learn to co-exist and navigate each other’s temperaments and fears. As far as books go, they are unconventional individuals simply because both are not in the prime of life and yet there is something about the relationship between the two that makes The Summer Book such an engrossing read.

It’s a book where nothing much happens and yet the small moments build up to paint an enchanting picture of family life during a Nordic summer.

Together, Sophia and her grandmother go for strolls along the coastline, they build a miniature Venice from wood, keep a cat, and build boats out of bark. Despite the huge age gap between the two and stark, contrasting personalities, the pair gels quite well and also embark on various adventures together. In keeping with the setting, each of the vignettes is like a self-contained island and depicts an idea around an event. For instance, a child called Berenice comes to stay on the island with them and is fearful of everything, an unknown visitor builds an ugly house on an adjacent island, a raging storm swirls around the island wreaking havoc, a midsummer evening is spent enjoying fireworks, and Sophia even sleeps in a tent alone.

They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

But more often than not, Sophia and her grandmother have illuminating conversations – sometimes solemn, sometimes laced with humour. They discuss God, nasty relatives, fear, love and even death.

In a chapter called “The Visitor”, the grandmother laments,

Nasty relatives. They tell him (her friend Verner) what to do without asking him what he wants, and so there’s nothing at all he really does want.

There is another beautiful piece called “Of Angleworms and Others” where Sophia is voicing aloud her thoughts on these creatures, and the grandmother is scribbling them down. When angleworms are split in two, the two parts become individual selves and grow. But do they experience pain? Sophia quips,

Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.

And she makes a profound observation…

They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

This particular observation hints at an element of darkness in the novel, an occurrence only mentioned once, but which hangs like a Damocles sword over the family – the death of Sophia’s mother. This is conveyed to the reader in only a couple of lines, but its spectre cannot be entirely forgotten.

Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Meanwhile, Sophia’s father is both an absence and a presence – he is not the central character but remains a figure in the background going about his work, while the centrestage belongs to his mother and daughter.

The idyllic Scandinavian summer is beautifully evoked – luscious landscapes, the blossoming of flowers, sounds and smells of waves, the immenseness of the sea, the serene, calm weather alternating with the rage and fury of storms.

I loved the tenderness shown by the grandmother towards Sophia as she assuages her fears and patiently bears out her outbursts. What’s remarkable about the novel is the portrayal of two perspectives together – the characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of life – the young Sophia who is curious, inquisitive with burning questions about the world, and the old grandmother who is mature but is beset by her own fears, always knowing that she is veering towards the end of her existence and hating the discomfort and dependence this entails.

And yet, for all her inexperience, there are moments when Sophia seems wise beyond her years, specifically when they talk about death. And the grandmother, for all her maturity, displays the inner child within her as she and Sophia engage in various activities on the island.

Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. The unchanging facet of island life is like a rock, an anchor against the turmoil and tempestuous moods of the sea and everything around it. It’s a testament to the fact that while life is unpredictable and has an uncanny ability to throw up challenges, there is comfort and solace to be found in the solidity of family rituals and relationships.