I have to say this is one of the hardest books I’ve had to review for a long time because I have such mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is full of beautiful language, on the other, it is in short, a brutal read. In fact I feel sullied after reading it; does that make it good or bad?
We meet Jasper Curtis as he is being released from Huntsville State Penitentiary after serving a ten-year sentence. He is returning to his boyhood home, a home where his sister Lizzie lives with her teenage daughter Katie, and younger daughter Joanne who has vacated her room for her uncle. Lizzie’s husband and father to the girls, left many years ago and up until now they have been a threesome.
Vanessa Ronan does a fantastic job of creating a sense of place in rural America in land surrounded by prairies. The identity of the town and its inhabitants is steadily reinforced by the liberal use of apostrophes across the page during dialogue, something that I can find irritating but in this novel it really worked well to reinforce the setting. And what a setting it is, I don’t think anything lends itself better to crime fiction than a small town setting where everyone knows everyone else, and in this novel in particular, nothing is ever forgotten.
The characters, well what can I say except that they are a rum old bunch! We have the convict, the bitter sister, the teenage girl who think she knows everything and yet understands so little, the Reverend who speaks for the community, not God and a multitude of others who will never forgive the crime Jasper Curtis committed. The only one that was remotely likeable was eleven year old Joanne, and to be honest that is mainly because she is the only innocent in the whole book. Now just because I didn’t like the characters doesn’t mean I wasn’t able to understand some of them, but… and this is the biggie, Jasper is a repulsive man whose views on women in particular made my skin crawl, hence my opening statement about feeling uneasy about how to rate this book. I didn’t enjoy one little book how uncomfortable it made me feel but it did make an enormous impression precisely because of that!
The author increases the tension in a number of ways from the slow incremental hinting at what Jasper really did all those years ago along with a multitude of other half-kept secrets, to the raw anger that bubbles not far below the surface of Jasper and so the feeling of dread grows under her masterful pen. With no chapters to give the reader a comfortable spot to take a break and despite the story which at times seemed to move incrementally forward, I would have thought the switch between character’s viewpoints more prone to pull me out of the story than was actually evident. As the summer rolls on and tensions rise, at least we have a full view of Jasper and his family’s thoughts and feelings and all of this against the background of searing heat in a drought.
Please don’t be fooled by the cover, this is not the gentle story of redemption I was expecting, some of this book shocking even for this seasoned reader of crime-fiction. Be warned if you are averse to overt violence, you will struggle!
Am I glad I read this book? Honestly, I’m still not sure but it definitely is one that I will remember and perhaps in time as the shocks subside I will look back on this book more fondly than I currently feel which explains the middle of the road star rating.
I’d like to say thank you to Penguin Ireland who kindly sent me a copy of The Last Days of Summer. This, my honest opinion (although half-formed) is my thank you to them.