By the simple act of telling a story a good book can carry a light into the dark and unexamined corners of a reader’s life. The darkest of these unexamined corners is occupied by the single irrefutable truth of our existence, death. Left in the shadows this stark fact can take on all of the attributes of a nightmarish spectre. Left unexamined we may be left entirely unprepared when death intrudes upon our own lives. Something it will do, eventually.
Last Summer by Kylie Ladd, begins with the sudden death of Rory Buchanan, captain of the local cricket team, a man in the prime of his life. We immediately enter the lives of those Rory left behind – his wife, Colleen, his sister, Kelly, her husband, Joe, and Rory’s friends and team-mates, Nick, James and Pete, and their wives, Laine, Anita and Trinity as they, in their various ways, cope with Rory’s death and face up to the fact that life does, and will, go on without him.
Last Summer is told from the points of view of these nine characters with full chapters from one point of view only. This method of storytelling requires strong characterisation so that each individual point of view provides a unique perspective on the events. By choosing suburban Melbourne as her setting, and the cricket club as her focal point, Ladd has made things difficult for herself. There is much that is necessarily shared by all of these nine characters. They are all white, they are all moderately well off, they are all around the same age and they all have some connection to the game of cricket. This seeming difficulty turns out to be one of the novel’s strengths.
A writer’s tools are sharpened upon their knowledge of human nature and as we read we discover that Ladd’s tools are very sharp indeed. A lazy writer will accentuate minor differences between characters or lean upon ready to hand stereotypes but Ladd shies away from these. You will not find the ditsy blonde, the funny guy, the earnest one, the clueless one, Dopey, Sneezy or Doc… Ladd’s characters are differentiated by their individual wants, needs, regrets and hopes, which are finely drawn. They are all at times funny, witty, stupid and earnest. This technique establishes each character’s point of view with a force which is at once memorable and engaging.
My allegiance to one character’s point of view was invariably challenged on reading the following chapter written from another character’s point of view. The effect was a broadening of my perspective. I was forced to examine events from different angles.
Ladd overcame my complacency, too – I thought I knew these people and in knowing them, secretly despised them. But as I read, her characters revealed themselves in unexpected ways, now they met my expectations, now they exceeded them. I was given an opportunity to warm to characters I would ordinarily shun in life. This is no small thing.
Last Summer is an entirely adult story. Here we find married people dealing with the consequences of a tragedy but having only the tools of ordinary suburban existence to aid them. The people described in Last Summer aren’t philosophers, they can’t crawl off to live in a barrel and ponder the meaning of life. After the funeral they have jobs to go to. That week the kids will have to be picked up from school, dinner will have to be made, as will the beds, and the laundry won’t get done all by itself. The rest of the cricket season awaits, too. A new captain has to be appointed, the fund raisers still have to be organised and someone has to replace Rory as coach of the Kookaburras, the kids cricket team.
The great internal strength we appreciate when reading Last Summer comes from Ladd’s weaving together of what could be nine novellas. We feel compelled to read on not only for the realisation of one grand scheme but the conclusion of many secondary plots as well. The wonder of it all is how seamlessly Ladd combines these sometimes disparate threads.
I would say Ladd is more of a listener than a talker. In Last Summer the author recedes allowing the characters to take centre stage. One can imagine Ladd in a room full of people finding it hard to concentrate on the conversation she may be having with you, not because she finds you dull but because she is simultaneously keeping track of the needs, wants and desires of everyone else in the room. It is this interest in people which enables her to construct scenes with large groups, and there are many in the book, without letting the reader miss out on a thing. Few writers understand the mentality of the group. Ladd does.
Ladd’s life beyond the page may give some insight into her interest in and knowledge of people. Dr Ladd has a PhD in neuropsychology, which is to say, she has made an extreme sport of voyeurism. Not happy with peeping through windows, she has taken to peering into the very workings of the brain. In laymen’s terms, she is one smart cookie.
It is clear on reading Last Summer, though, that Ladd is an artist, first and foremost. Her ability to reproduce the phrasing of a liar, to provide meaning with an action left half done, to describe the slow and painful progress of someone attempting to clamber over the ramparts of a wounded heart, these cannot be reduced to her professional interest in human psychology. We must conclude that an artist’s instinct and craft is at work here, too.
But having said that, Ladd does not offer us flights of fancy. Last Summer confirms Ladd’s preference for the true. This is fiction which clasps fact’s hand and will not let it go. Ladd’s prose is understated, purposefully so, I feel. She knows she must keep quiet and not interrupt with fancy phrases or authorial interjections. She is aware how important it is to keep the line of her narrative taught. Last Summer is art cleansed of hyperbole, modern realism at its most unobtrusive.
Ladd depicts her characters coming to grips with their loss and what it means in the midst of the chaos of contemporary suburban life. Our suburban life. Although we may feel invincible, we may feel that we have examined our lives, that we are prepared for any eventuality, more often than not, when tragedy strikes we find we are unprepared, hopelessly so.
Last Summer caused me to reflect on life. On my life, too. How well do I communicate with others? How important are my relationships? Is this the life I want to be living? Have I made these choices or have they been made for me?
Ladd reminds us that when death comes it is too late to ask these questions. We can’t schedule time for a breakdown. We can’t make things right by sheer will. By letting us into the lives of these people Ladd offers us an opportunity to make sense of a subject we shun, simplify or worse, mythologise.
I read Last Summer quickly, greedily. I really wanted to know what happened next, how these people would cope. When I wasn’t reading it – when I was at work – I kept thinking I should text the characters to see how they were doing. They had become such a part of my life. It was a wonderful feeling. A great thing for a novel to achieve.
And even though Last Summer made me stare right into the unremarkable face of death, when I closed the book, and leaned back to think, I realised that the central theme of the book is not death but life – and how to live it well.
My one complaint is that the novel moves too quickly and the end comes too soon. I would quite happily have lingered for longer amongst these characters. But perhaps that is Ladd’s intent. Perhaps she wants to encourage us to get out and meet our neighbours in the flesh.
Kylie Ladd is a strong, intelligent, subtle and wise new voice in Australian literature who is already being compared with Christos Tsiolkas, Malcolm Knox and Helen Garner. Last Summer is a warm, entertaining and somewhat life-changing novel which will be enjoyed, and re-read, by readers of Jodi Picoult, Ian McEwan and Colm Toibin.
And to the five or six people reading this who know of my taste in literature and raise their eyebrows at such words of commendation I say, I mean every word. And to those who read Last Summer and find not what I have found, I say, look again.