John Burnside: A Summer of Drowning

Reading two books by one author in the same year is rare for me, but how many authors present so many different forms to us as John Burnside? A poet, novelist and memoirist, his acclaim in all three areas would be sickening if it weren’t so thrilling. As noted previously, I had given up on his fiction after the diminishing returns of his first three novels, but his first memoir A Lie About My Father had me agog a few months ago, and keen to read his recent stuff. The impulse was supported when I read that Burnside himself now regards the second and third novels which lost me as “disastrous”. Time to come right up to date then, with his latest.

A Summer of Drowning suffers, in my view, from a troublesome (hardback) cover. (The printed version is much darker than the image above.) Even as an interested party, I saw it and thought, what were they thinking? As it happens, my scepticism was unjustified: the cover shows the painting Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg, which is significant in the story. Indeed, as I became more and more delighted and disturbed by this exceptional novel, I took to contemplating the cover in wonder in between bursts of reading. But a cover which attracts only after the reader has begun the book could still look like an own goal.

It is narrated by Liv, a twenty-eight year old woman who lives with her mother on Kvaløya, a small island in the Arctic Circle. Liv tells us how ten years ago a local boy, Mats Sigfridsson, drowned off the island: “I like to think that the sea took pity on the puny child it had killed, and was in the process of carrying him home.” Not only that, Mats’ brother Harald died the same way ten days later, and a visitor to the island, Martin Crosbie, went missing shortly afterwards. Normally it would be blogging etiquette to emphasise that this is not a spoiler, and here you may be doubly reassured: not only does Liv tell us all this in the prologue, but the book doesn’t really go into much detail about the events when the narrative does catch up with them. This is one of those tricky volumes where the first task of the reader is to determine exactly what it’s about.

It’s about, at least in part, Liv and her mother, Angelika Rossdal. She is a painter who, having gained fame, appears to reject it by withdrawing to the frozen north. I say appears to because she continues to welcome journalists who want to interview her, and to hold court for a group of men Liv refers to as “the suitors” and whose interest, whatever form it in fact takes, her mother clearly finds satisfying. (Liv never knew her father, though she discovers that he was her mother’s opposite: a campaigner and ideologue who wanted to change the world by engaging people with it.) Liv has been in her mother’s shadow for so long that it is hard to tell who the thoughts belong to when she says something like this, concerning her mother’s withdrawal:

To turn away from the busy world is interesting, up to a point … but to refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art.

She is not just talking about an artist’s work. Mats and Harald Sigfridsson, in drowning, may have removed themselves from the frame, and become nothing. Liv herself, solitary and unclubbable, has refused herself in relation to many aspects of society in the ten years since the boys died. “I chose to become invisible. … I have remained in these meadows, where I have always been, and I have done nothing at all.” Her only significant human contact is Kyrre Opdahl, a man who has lived in the area for as long as anyone can remember, and who “was my own personal storyteller, someone who charmed and frightened me, in more or less equal measure, all the time I was growing up.” Kyrre rents out a cottage, or hytte, to tourists each summer, and tells Liv about the huldra, a wild spirit who takes the form of a beautiful girl and lures men to their doom. (“First she brought him a little happiness, then she killed him.”)

Liv’s mother has a great gift in her painting, which means that her lack of interest in people is accepted, even viewed as selfless: she had to remove herself from society to fulfil her potential. The reader may not be so convinced. The myth of Narcissus is related in the book, and referred to in an epigraph. It’s typically remembered as a simple warning against self-regard, but Liv is reminded by one of her mother’s suitors, Ryvold, that it goes deeper. Narcissus didn’t know to begin with that it was himself was seeing in the pool.

He had thought he was alone, looking at a world separate from him, a world of other things, and then, all of a sudden, he sees that he is in that world. […] And it’s only when he discovers the truth, and sees that his self is an object in a world, like all the other objects, that he becomes a painter. Because, for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.

Angela Rossdal’s self-denial, her “gift for refusal,” is not so humble as it seems. And she has not prepared her daughter well for living in the world by allowing her to believe herself not to be a part of it. (One might say that this story of erasure is just one psychological drama after another.) Where Angela’s fame and talent get her far, Liv has no such collateral with the islanders to justify her own isolation. What must they think of her? That appears to be something else the book is about, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied by this aspect. From the start we get hints of Liv as being somewhat unusual, unreliable even (“I have very few memories that I would be prepared to call my own”) and as the story proceeds, the clues build up. She spies on Kyrre Opdahl’s guests in the hytte: “It was because I wanted them to be happy”. This may be her best attempt at matching her mother’s careful negotiation of observation and distance. She becomes obsessed with the notion that the demonic huldra is a local girl called Maia (the only other female we meet on Kvaløya: Liv and her mother are surrounded by men). Burnside wants the book to be ambiguous – “The Turn of the Screw, set in the Arctic Circle” – but it already is, and is also rich and sinister, even without making Liv such an obvious object of suspicion for the reader.

The thrill of A Summer of Drowning comes from being in the presence of a writer on form and attacking his subject from all angles. (The style of the book, like an oral telling, makes the reader’s awareness of the teller – whether Liv or Burnside – central.) A sense of excitement began to stalk me from around the halfway point, a suspicion of horror internalised and unacknowledgeable, perhaps even coming from the reader himself. It was connected to Liv’s inability to be in the world and to accept the others who exist in it: she dreams of “some inconceivable Before,” when people did not yet exist. “I regret that lost state.” To bring about this sort of engagement with a book – hard to put your finger on but impossible to stop thinking about, even when you’re not reading it – is a rare achievement. Liv, in a sense, is the most frightening character I’ve read in a book in years. When she speaks of another character’s “immense, dark calm” and how, after an awful event, “she had started to relax – but she was relaxing into something terrible, and she was going about the world in a state of complete indifference to whatever might come,” it’s ominously clear what she’s really talking about. “Stories are really about time,” Ryvold tells her. “They tell us that once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred – and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over.”


  1. Well, you know I loved this one too, a real shame not to see it on the Booker list at all (I have no idea whether it was submitted or not). It’s a truly atmospheric novel that has a haunting presence in my brain several months later. As you say, Burnside is a writer truly on form at the moment. The fact that this novel was one he abandoned a while ago and felt confident enough to come back to and finish so triumphantly is a mark of that.

    I’m so pleased that you’ve come round to Burnside again and can only hope that a little barracking from me and others along the way might have helped nudge you.

  2. How strange – my first thought on seeing this cover was how stunning it was! But I was only seeing the lower half. You’re right, in its entirety it seems a little too dark, but that bottom part, with the house glowing through the trees, I would love on my wall.

    The book itself sounds contemplative book and quite profound. Your review made me think of an Anita Brookner novel (just generally, not any one in particular). Maybe because being an artist requires reflection, and that to some extent is being captured here.

    That last quote about stories I found particularly attractive, and I am intrigued by the idea of this frightening character which is unsettling in such a subtle way. Really sinister! Although maybe I know a couple of people like this in real life, thinking about it.

  3. This sounds like a keeper, John. It is remarkable that so many books of the far north have this atmospheric quality as a vital and active part of the story; as though the myths and folk tales are still active presences in the lives and minds of the characters in the stories. I think there is a vast market for such stories, just on the basis of this review. You suggest the “Turn of the Screw” and I know exactly the kind of tale you are talking about.
    I too will add this to my wishlist – and avoid the earlier Burnside novels, too! Thanks and regards,

  4. Inspired by your review, I went looking for this yesterday John, and you’re right, the printed version’s cover is very dark. I’d seen Burnside enthused about but your thoughts tipped the scale. Looking forward to this.

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