Book review: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

The drowsy, listless heat of a summer’s day, the turbulent, bittersweet passions of the teen years and the alluring calm of a quiet canal towpath…

Thursday, 20th August 2015, 10:00 am
The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon
The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

These evocative emotions and piquant rural visions are the driving forces behind an extraordinary and original coming-of-age debut novel from Sarah Jasmon, a writer who lives with her three children on a canal boat near Manchester.

And still waters certainly run deep in this atmospheric story about the mysterious events of a single summer that change lives forever and resonate across 30 years.

Packed with suspense and awash in dark undercurrents, The Summer of Secrets moves between past and present to explore the fragile relationship between two very different teenage girls from two very different families as they are thrown together over one long, hot summer.

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In 1983, 16-year-old Helen is glad the summer holidays have arrived. Her O-levels are done, her nagging mother isn’t around to make her ‘do things’ and there will be no school until September.

But Helen is isolated, unhappy and friendless. After weeks of rows and turmoil, her mother walked out of their canalside cottage, leaving Helen alone with her dad who is morose, drinks and smokes too much, and takes little interest in his daughter.

So when the bohemian Dover family rents a nearby cottage, Helen’s lonely world at once becomes a more exciting place. She is infatuated with all the family, bemused by their bizarre, chaotic and extrovert way of life but always exhilarated in their company.

Helen is especially attracted to the carefree, charming, mischievous if sometimes cruel and cutting Victoria Dover, a girl who shares the same age as Helen but little else.

As the long, hot days stretch out in front of them, Helen and Victoria become inseparable, sharing fun and friendship. But when a stranger appears, Helen begins to question whether the secretive Dover family are really what they seem.

And when the summer comes to an abrupt and devastating end, life changes for all involved but it will take another 30 years to unravel the truth behind a terrible tragedy…

The Summer of Secrets is a beautifully written, almost lyrical novel, a story told with the unhurried calm of slow-moving canal waters but tantalisingly punctured by short, sharp shocks of disturbing revelation.

Through a series of seductive word pictures, Jasmon captures the shimmering heat haze of the English countryside in summer and the claustrophobic intensity and simmering tensions of a newly-kindled adolescent friendship.

The emotional vulnerability of the two girls and the unreliability of memory are portrayed with stunning insight, while growing uncertainties in the narrative voice of Helen add psychological impetus to an intriguing mystery.

Heartbreaking, tender and quietly powerful, this is an impressive first novel from an author to watch.

(Black Swan, paperback, £6.99)