The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall: Review by Toni Whitmont

by |December 21, 2011

Newcomer Emylia Hall weaves a touch of magic in The Book of Summers. It is not the magic of vampires or faeries. This is the magic of snatched dreams, half recollected in the dawn. The magic of snapshots of memory. The magic of some really beautifully pieced together sentences.

When we first meet Beth she is a 29 year old guarded, emotionally distant gallery attendant, virtually estranged from her father, the only family she has. Her principal preoccupation is forgetting – forgetting her past, denying her memories. This strategy has served her well for fourteen years, the fourteen years since the scarifying break from her mother, a passionate and exotic Hungarian called Marika.

So when her father delivers her a parcel one day, a scrapbook that documents the many summers she spent as Erzsi, visiting Marika and her artist partner Zoltan in a bucolic hunting lodge cum studio in a forested region of Hungary, Beth is totally unprepared for the torrent of memories that come flooding back.

The Book of Summers is a lovely coming of age story with a sting in its tail. Written very much from the perspective of Beth/Erzsi as she watches her parents marriage disintegrate, and as she tries to protect both parents from the depredations of their failed relationship, it teeters on the edge of  pastiche, avoiding it both through the beauty of the language and the compelling story telling.

This debut novel certainly has a buzz about it overseas. Typical of the comments is this: “For me, it’s the perfect summer read. It has real heart, a fantastic twist and a wonderfully redemptive ending. Emylia flawlessly conjures up those endless hot summer days of childhood—it’s one of the most deliciously evocative pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time.”

The Book of Summers is available from Booktopia from the end of February 2012 and will come (for a short time only) in a lovely matching tote bag. Best read on a hazy warm afternoon on a verandah. With a box of tissues. And a ticket to Budapest in your back pocket.

The Book of Summers: synopsis

When news of a death in the family reaches her from abroad, Beth Lowe realises that she can no longer avoid her past.  She is sent a photograph album, a poignant record of the seven summers she spent in rural Hungary.  A time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two distinct countries; a bewitching but imperfect mother and a gentle, reticent father, the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon.  Years later, Beth’s Hungarian summers continue to haunt and entice her.  The Book of Summers is about the lies we tell, the truths we keep and, above all, the ways we find to keep on loving one another.

From the author:

My first novel, The Book of Summers, is a coming-of-age story about longing and belonging.  It is born of childhood memories – some real, many imagined.  Every summer when I was small we would pack up the car and take the ferry from Dover to Calais, before driving through France and Germany.  In later years we ventured further afield to Austria and Hungary.  We’d be away for a month at a time, returning with tanned skin, mosquito bites and a hatful of travellers’ tales.  My father documented our trips with his Nikon, while I did the same with my journal.

I was eleven years old when we first went to Hungary.  It was 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down, and my mother was keen to explore her Hungarian roots.  Together we discovered a country that was changing, a place possessed of a turbulent past and an uncertain future.  Yet it was the simple, timeless things that captured my imagination and stayed with me.  The incredible heat that churned the surface of roads where state buses pulled in and sent us scurrying for shade in search of peach soda.  The delicious food and its relative cheapness – my sister and I marvelled at ice-cream for five pence a blob and quickly learned how to say, három gombóc fagylalt, cseresznye, vanilia és csokoládé (three scoops please, cherry, vanilla and chocolate).  The beauty of the land – we discovered a lake as big as a sea, chalky hillsides bursting with rhododendrons, mustard-painted houses with languid verandas and crooked tiled roofs.  We stayed by turns in a 1960’s tower block hotel with Russian guests that serenaded the setting sun over Lake Balaton, a faded but elegant apartment across the Danube from the Houses of Parliament, and a Transylvanian-style hunting lodge tucked among the forests of the Pilis Hills.  For several years we went back every summer, and everything was always the same and always different.

After the holidays had ended and we were back at home, with looming school and shortening days, these trips took on a new life.  My father assembled meticulous photo albums, each one marked and labelled with route maps and dates.  We’d revisit these books throughout the winter months, when sun-tans and inflatable lilos were swapped for woodsmoke and blankets, and our summers seemed like a faraway dream.  We were generous with our recall – even remembering with fondness the mosquito bites that had studded our ankles, the strange towelling sheets that itched in the hot nights, and the time our exhaust pipe fell off and we roared about a quiet French town like a rally car.  Our adventures, both vital and insignificant, fell to family folklore.  It is from these memories, these images, these facts, that The Book of Summers grew.

The rest is fiction.

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