Florida, 1935. Heron Key is a small town where the relationships are as tangled as the mangrove roots in the swamp. Everyone is preparing for the 4th of July barbecue, unaware that their world is about to change for ever. Missy, the Kincaid family’s maid and nanny, feels that she has wasted her life pining for Henry, whom she has not seen since he went to fight on the battlefields of France in WWI. Now he has returned with a group of other desperate, destitute veterans on a government works project, unsure of his future, ashamed of his past.
When a white woman is found beaten nearly to death in the early hours, suspicion falls on Henry. Old grievances and prejudices threaten to derail the investigation. As the tensions rise, the barometer starts to plummet. The residents think they’re ready, and so do the soldiers. They are wrong. Nothing in their experience could prepare them for what is coming. For far out over the Atlantic, the greatest storm ever to strike North America is heading their way…
2015 has been a quite wonderful year for reading so far, and I’m delighted to report that Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye – published by Orion in hardcover and for kindle on 15 January – was another read that continued that trend.
This was very different from my usual fare – you’ll have noticed I tend towards psychological thriller and women’s literature (ok – “chick lit” if you like!). But the book had every bit as much building tension as any thriller – it takes you to the edge of your seat and keeps you there, trembling, until you turn the final pages. That tension comes from the approaching storm, inexorably approaching Heron Key, but also from the undercurrents of racial hatred and the barely suppressed brutality of the veterans.
The book has an explosive opening – many have mentioned the incident with the alligator, and it’s a wonderful device to hook in the reader and to introduce Missy, the strong female character at the centre of the book. The author creates a whole cast of characters who jump off the page. There’s Hilda Kincaid, whose looks have faded and who struggles with the neglect of her husband; Dwayne Campbell, the local sheriff, whose wife has produced a mixed race baby, who tries to be firm and fair while wrestling with his own demons; Missy’s friend Selma, who takes charge in a whole range of situations but carries the weight of her feckless husband and sometimes resorts to the ancient arts to secure the outcomes she wants. There’s an immense cast of characters, all vividly portrayed in a few deft strokes – from the veterans (who soon become individuals, rather than the group you at first perceive them to be), through the brittle white community who frequent the sports club, down to the woman who brings her inedible potato salad to every gathering. And then there’s Henry – a good man massively changed by his wartime experiences, a character you’ll grow to admire as his complexity as a character reveals itself.
The writing is really exceptional. The book’s opening has you sweating in the heat and humidity along with the clean washing not drying on the line – the descriptions are wonderful, the words carefully chosen, the quality of the writing slow and languorous. As tensions and the storm build, the style changes, slowly, almost imperceptibly, cranking up for the vivid descriptions of the horror and violence to come from both human and natural sources. There are scenes in this book that will stay with me for a very long time, every detail etched into my memory by a writer at the peak of her powers.
Heron Key is the author’s own invention – the storm isn’t, and the author’s notes will tell you more about the most powerful storm that ever hit America, on Labor Day 1935 rather than the 4th July of her work of fiction. Making it a work of fiction additionally enables her to draw in all the other elements that make this a wonderful story – the dreadful way in which the veterans were treated on their return from war (this was a part of history I didn’t know before), the impact of the Great Depression, the racial divides in the South, the lynch mobs, the segregation, plus a love story, but to tell the story through her own imaginary cast.
I felt like I’d been through a wringer when I finished – I’d really been battling the elements and the injustices along with them – but I’d recommend this book to everyone. Something very different, exceptionally well written, and one hell of a story.
My thanks to netgalley and publishers Orion for my advance reading copy.
“I was born in Tallahassee, FL in 1963 but the family moved to Tampa soon after. This is where I was raised and schooled until I left for Duke University in 1981. There were hurricanes most years, strong enough to send us scurrying for the safety of the bedroom closets, but nothing on the scale depicted in Summertime. I am happy to say that I’ve never experienced a natural disaster of that magnitude. A thirst for adventure brought me to Europe in 1987, first to France and then England.
Writing was always a part of my life, from my first story at the age of six, but I did not made any efforts to get published until my 40s. I never imagined that my first novel to be published would be set in Florida, the place which I left nearly 30 years ago. At age 51, I’m proof that it’s never too late to have your dreams come true.” (Taken from Goodreads profile)
View Vanessa’s introduction to Summertime here: