The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall is a review copy which is why I read it. I would have never have been drawn to such a saccharine cover otherwise. It's external sweet shop tones belie the rather tough well written interior however, so I am very glad to have been given a copy.
The book begins with Beth Lowe, a young professional in London, living in a flat and awaiting her father on a visit from Devon. He brings with him a parcel for Beth from Hungary with a letter telling Beth her mother has died and a photograph album displaying the photographs of seven consecutive summers of her late childhood. The Book of Summers is structured around this album as Beth tells us the stories of those summers, of her parents' marital breakdown, of her own relationships with both her mother and father and of her growing-up and falling in love with a Hungarian boy Tamas.
The album idea and series of flash backs are, like the cover design, rather overworked features of some forms of genre fiction (Chick lit? Holiday reading? Maeve Binchy chest flatteners? Take your pick) and at this point I'd have been wondering what the heck the publicist thought they were doing sending this to me had not I been immediately enchanted with both Hall's prose and the protagonist Beth. Not, in the end, that I particularly like Beth (she is self-focused, juvenile, and full of misplaced anger and loyalties) but that in itself already lifts this novel away from what it first appears. Unlike typical holiday reading you need not identify with the main character, nor like her at all; she is too real, and like a colleague or a neighbour one just accepts.
Throughout the book has so much to recommend it. The handling of the troubled teenage years is done beautifully and if I am frustrated by Beth's rather arrested emotional development, then the events of her youth and the progression from happy child to surly adult is clean, clear and believable. The descriptions of life in Devon versus Hungary are lively, colourful and full of believable details. Relationships too are handled well, believable but not too tidy.
In the end I found myself thoroughly enjoying the book. As a bookseller I should know better than to judge a book by its cover. But what of the reader who picks this up seeking holiday reading? Well, it is a lovely read but it also has a very dark heart, and it is one that darkens as you finish the book and think about the events over the next days. On a sunbed I'd have been rather un-nerved by this. The colours of this book, despite the summers of the title, seem rather more autumnal to me. It has pretensions to literary fiction but it is at the more entertaining end of that spectrum. To me it is a warm throw and open fire kind of book, to mull over as the nights draw in.
All in all a very readable and worthwhile book, rather oddly packaged.
The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall is due out in paperback this week.