|THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER
Vanessa Ronan (vanessaronanbooks.com)
Lizzie Curtis lives with her two young daughters at the edge of a rural Texas town towards the end of the 1970s or early 1980s. Her brother has spent ten years in jail for an unspecified crime against his ex-girlfriend. His sentence served, Lizzie takes him in, because he’s family, and because he has nowhere else to go. He is befriended almost immediately upon his return home by his eleven-year-old niece, Joanne, who knows nothing of his crime. The rest of the town, Joanne’s older sister included, have not forgotten Jasper’s transgression, nor have they forgiven him. Led by Eddie Saunders, the brother of the girl Jasper attacked, the town set out to harass and ultimately kill him, but not before they hurt him through the family that has taken him back in.
It is obvious from the outset, from the moment Reverend Gordon pays a visit to Lizzie on the eve of Jasper’s return, just where Vanessa Ronan’s debut novel is headed. The surprise is not in the oft-told tale of revenge, but in how it is told, in the unexpected relationship that flares between Jasper and his niece, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who will play a central role in his “rehabilitation”. While the suspicious minds of those around them, Lizzie included, think the worst about how close the pair are, Ronan presents a close friendship that is as innocent as it is beautiful.
While the story centres on the return of Jasper to the small community from which he was exiled, Ronan presents much of it from the point of view of the women who are now part of his life: his sister Lizzie, who has had a hard life, not helped by the fact that her brother went to prison, or that her husband was driven from town because Eddie Saunders and his crew thought he had a hand in Jasper’s crime. Raising two young girls alone, she has been an outcast for several years, since the death of her mother, her last remaining tie to the town and its residents. Katie, the older of the two girls, knows enough about her uncle’s crime to believe she has an opinion on it, but her biggest source of information are the very people who have suffered most because of his actions. In many ways, Katie’s actions are driven by ignorance, and the insecurity that comes with her need to be desired by the local high-school football hero, the son of Eddie Saunders’ best friend.
Joanne, Lizzie’s youngest daughter, is the most interesting of the book’s characters and, in some ways, the most fully-formed of the lot. Which is not to say that the others are flat, but we see much more of the world through this young girl’s eyes than we do of anyone else. The picture of innocence, her desire to be close to her uncle is born of a simple wish to know this man who is of her own blood. She has a refreshing outlook on life, the kind that we outgrow as we outgrow childhood itself, and this shines through in all her actions, and all her interactions with the other characters. Her curiosity drives an intense need to understand why Uncle Jasper spent ten years in prison, even though we, the reader, know that their closeness is unlikely to survive the truth. Like a car crash happening in slow motion, The Last Days of Summer shows us, as much as anything, Joanne’s coming-of-age, her abrupt and shocking loss of innocence.
For a debut novel, The Last Days of Summer is strongly-written and excellently paced. Driven by the heat of the Texas prairie, the story moves at a snail’s pace, tension building in increments so that the climax comes almost as a relief. With a descriptive power that may be second only to the likes of James Lee Burke or Larry McMurtry, Vanessa Ronan transports us to this small Texas town and invites us to watch as the events unfold. The language, and Ronan’s ability to manipulate it, are simply stunning, the story itself at times seeming like little more than a vehicle to showcase this incredible writing talent.
While The Last Days of Summer doesn’t appear to be my usual fare, this is one of those cases where the book cover seriously lets down the story within. This is humanity laid bare, with all of our foibles and petty arguments on show for the world to see. This is a book that I can’t help but unashamedly and unreservedly recommend to anyone, and Vanessa Ronan proves that she has a talent that will quickly set her amongst the greats of whichever genre she chooses to write in. I’m an instant fan, and will be watching Ronan’s career with an eagle eye in the years to come. Do not miss this book.