John Burnside's novel A Summer of Drowning is mesmeric in its intensity. Set in a dream-like artic landscape of Norway the novel bristles with gothic imagery: ghosts, malevolent spirits from Norse mythology, spectrally cool houses with corridors leading nowhere. Burnside takes us to the furthest realm of beyond the pale, this is a novel which is luminescent with icy light, and which sheds that light on some of Burnside's enduring themes: being an outsider, art, disappearance and belonging.
The Summer of Drowning begins with the drowning of two brothers and ends with another even more troubling disappearance, but the title also alludes to the deluged interior life of its main character, Liv, whose perception of things becomes so submerged that she appears to be living in a kind of bathysphere.
Perception, and its moral twin, witness, are at the heart of this novel. Liv's observations of the world are largely Burnside's own: she sees the deeply astonishing beauty of the smallest particular. Our attention is drawn to the silvery light of the lichens on the wall, the changing light of the sea, a summer where everything is lit with the paradoxical light of the midnight sun. But for all this unremitting light, we still cannot bring into focus quite what it is we are seeing. With Liv, we see, or perhaps we just just miss seeing, the uncanny disappearances of two men. With Liv, we see, or think we see, the Huldra, the bewitching Norse Goddess for the seductress she is, but might we revise that to see an isolated misfit, almost the mirror image of Liv herself? The conclusions we are invited to draw are disturbingly fleeting, almost grasped, before they unravel into the unbelievable truth. We are left with the feeling of having experienced rather than read this novel. And the reason for that is that this is a novel which makes it its business to identify the gaping flaws in the fabric of rationality. There may well be a rational explanation for all the events of the novel but, Burnside suggests, it would devastatingly fail to account for the things which this novel values: inspiration, beauty, love and art.