I know it’s awfully nerdy, but I’m admitting it anyway: I love routine. I am obsessed with structure. That’s why my blog works the way it does, I guess: read a book, write a review, move forward to the next year, rinse, lather and repeat. There’s a particular elegance about structure; about symmetry. That’s just the way my mind works.
But, as lovely as I find structure, I have to admit, there’s also a certain beauty about breaking with routine every so often. Chaos can be just as enticing as order.
This week, I’m breaking my own rules. And it’s for a very good reason.
Last year, I read and reviewed Kylie Ladd’s 2009 debut novel, After the Fall. Ladd’s second novel, Last Summer, has just been released and, having enjoyed After the Fall so much, I simply had to delay my precious schedule for one week to read Last Summer.
I’m taking the week off travelling through time, and staying right here in the present for once. Here’s my review:
by Kylie Ladd
Published in 2011
Rory Buchanan always hated losing. He was the captain of the local cricket team, he volunteered at every club barbeque and he worked as a builder. He was devoted to his wife and their two boys, his parents and his sister. Rory was popular, handsome, young…
It’s a surprise to everyone when one summer afternoon, as Rory walks away from the nets, he suddenly collapses and dies.
But Last Summer is not Rory’s story. It’s the story of the nine people Rory leaves behind. Rory’s wife, Colleen. His sister, Kelly, and her husband, Joe. His friends, Nick, James and Pete, and their wives, Laine, Anita and Trinity. It was Rory’s presence that bound the group together. As these nine friends mourn Rory, alliances begin to drift. Marriages that seemed as though they’d last forever suddenly fall to pieces. Life stubbornly refuses to pause for the dead. Children still need to be taken to school. The cricket team needs a new captain. Without Rory, things won’t ever be quite the same.
Slowly, as the seasons change, the nine people closest to Rory are left to deal with their grief for not only a lost friend, but also for another, more intangible loss.
From its very first sentence, Last Summer is a moving study of death, desire and the space between the two – a gap not as wide as we might be comfortable admitting. The novel gently deals with mortality and fear, our natural terror of growing old and being replaced. At one point towards the end of the novel, Nick, an education officer at the Melbourne Museum, speaks to a touring school group about archaeology:
“‘What about this, then?’ asked a girl, holding up one of the jaw bones.
‘That’s not from a dinosaur either. That’s from a human: a man, about my age,’ said Nick, at which point she shrieked and dropped it with a clatter to the floor” (p. 245)
For me, this simple little scene acts out in miniature the theme that forms the novel’s soul – one of many moments of sheer genius.
Though I read Last Summer quickly, I often found myself staring into space in the gaps between chapters. You’d better be prepared for a spot of soul-searching when you read Last Summer. And a few tears, too.
It’s strange, the way I could barely read the chapter describing Rory’s funeral, because I was trying to hold back tears and the words were all wobbly on the page. Yet only a few chapters later, I found myself so deeply entangled in the lives of these nine characters; their struggles, their grief, their joy…though it feels awful to admit it, Rory retreated into the background. In fiction, as in reality, life must – and will – go on. Last Summer might be a novel about mortality, but as you read, you’ll realise it’s about life, too.
As with her debut, After the Fall, Last Summer is told from different perspectives – in this case, the nine people grieving Rory. Each chapter (with two notable exceptions) focuses on a different character. We return to them at different stages of the novel.
Notably, the narration of Last Summer has moved into the third person, so we lose the confessional, sometimes overwhelming tone of After the Fall. This gives Last Summer a completely different tone. It’s a little more graceful, more balanced. More natural. We observe the characters from a distance, rather than having them right in our faces, telling us their stories. It’s the perfect choice for this novel. Juggling nine characters isn’t an easy task, but Ladd makes it look effortless.
It’s the characters of Last Summer that will draw you into this novel and keep you reading until one in the morning. Each has an individual way of dealing with (or not dealing with) their loss. It will take you a while to get to know them all, to keep track of who’s married to who, but once you do, you’ll feel a strange kinship with these characters. You might not always like them, or agree with them, but they’ll become a part of your life. And, in turn, you feel like a part of their circle.
Last Summer is studded here and there with such brilliantly-observed details. Kelly, Rory’s sister, comments that Rory’s friends are awkward at the funeral not solely through grief, but because they’re simply too young to have attended many funerals. It’s such an apt observation. There are little gems like this scattered through the pages. Even though there are often big gaps in time between the novel’s chapters, Ladd’s attention to little details didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed out on anything. The novel just falls together perfectly.
Although Last Summer grapples with some seriously heavy themes, it rarely feels too heavy. It’s so deftly written, so gentle and careful that it won’t drag you down. It’s sad, without being bleak; confronting without being overwhelming.
Raw and honest and moving, Last Summer shows us life, the way life is. Kylie Ladd doesn’t answer every question and coyly refuses to tie up every loose end by the novel’s end. But, honestly, I wouldn’t want this lovely novel any other way.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Most definitely. But don’t read the first two chapters on the train home from work, like I did. Not unless you really want complete strangers to look at you, puzzled, as you get all sniffly and struggle to hold back tears…
In a word: