First published in April 2012.
The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall has already received high praise from reviewers and critics alike. The prologue of the novel, told from the third person perspective, focuses upon the character of Marika, the long-estranged mother of protagonist Beth Lowe. In it, we find that she has created a scrapbook entitled ‘The Book of Summers’, which details the seven summers which she and Beth spent in her native Hungary. The book spans the period between 1991 and 1997 and is made up of a collection of photographs and memories. This enables the adult Beth to see herself as a young girl, in a series of ‘quick-flicking snatches’.
Chapter one then reverts to the first person perspective of Beth, now grown up and ‘settled’ in London where she works in an art gallery. Her absorbing voice carries us through the rest of the novel. The reader is engaged in her world from the beginning of the novel. The narrative is well thought out and believable, and its style is just right with regard to the storyline which Hall has crafted.
The novel opens with Beth’s father, who lives in a rural Devon village, paying a rare impromptu visit to London to see her. He brings a parcel with him, a Hungarian postmark adorning its front, which has been addressed to ‘Erzsébet Lowe’, a name which Beth associates solely with her youth. It is at this point that The Book of Summers comes into Beth’s life. She soon realises that the book has been sent to her by the artist Zoltán Károly, her mother’s lover and a strong link with her past in Hungary. He has written to let Beth know about Marika’s sudden death, a revelation which both scares and shocks her and forces her to remember.
A wealth of memories from Beth’s childhood summers have been woven throughout the text, running concurrently with the narrative voice. These recollections detail her relationship with her father and show the reader how the characters featured within the novel have changed over time, and the situations which have contributed to their personalities.
As the trips to Hungary throughout the summers unfold, it is clear that the family is divided. On their first trip to the country, Beth and her father are outsiders. There are cultural differences, the relationships Marika has with people from her past and, most insurmountable of all, the language barrier. At the end of this trip, Marika opts to stay in Hungary whilst Beth and her father travel back to Devon with broken hearts. After this, Beth goes to visit her mother without fail for a week every summer, and as each year passes her confidence grows. She soon makes a friend in Tamás, a neighbour of Zoltán and Marika’s.
As the novel progresses, something akin to a mystery is built up. We are pointed towards an event, a moment in time which is not revealed to us immediately but is pivotal to the entire story. The Book of Summers deals with the pain of remembrance, the dredging up of old memories, a sea of disappointments, and the heartache and terror of absence. It is, in part, a coming of age novel which focuses mainly on the adjustment to new experiences and what it means to be a teenager whose world is falling apart.
Beth is not always a likeable character due to some of the decisions she makes throughout the novel and the way in which she acts with others. This does make her a more three-dimensional character, but the reader feels much more sympathy towards those she hurts than to Beth herself, particularly with regard to her father, David.
Hall’s descriptions, particularly those of the characters she has created, work well. She knits small traits into their personalities, making them seem more three-dimensional as a result. Beth’s father is described as being ‘meticulous’, and her mother Marika as ‘tall and proud and relentlessly foreign’. Her portrayal of the Hungarian landscape too works effectively. There are some lovely passages throughout the novel. Aspects of social history have been included throughout and serve to build up the story. They add another dimension to it and make it more realistic. The Hungarian words with their translations which have been used throughout is a nice touch. The inclusion of letters from different characters works as a successful tool for bringing others into the story, allowing the reader to find out more about them.
Unfortunately, some aspects of the novel do not seem to ring true. As Beth reaches the ages of fifteen and sixteen, her speech seems to be at a more advanced level than it should be. She feels too grown up in places and the reader loses belief in her in consequence.
The Book of Summers is an intriguing novel, sad in places and filled with elation in others. It raises many questions throughout, and the reader consequently feels the urge to know what has happened to Beth and her family and how they came to be so broken in the first place. The Book of Summers is a great debut from a promising author.