Review: Black Dog Summer

Posted 6 February, 2015 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

Black Dog Summer
By: Miranda Sherry
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster CA

A small, bright thread of a story weaves out from the moment of my passing and seems to tether me to this place. Perhaps this is why I have not left yet. Perhaps I have no choice but to follow the story to its end.

Compulsively readable and stylistically stunning, Black Dog Summer begins with a murder, a farmstead massacre, in the South African bush. Thirty-eight-year-old Sally is but one of the victims. Her life brutally cut short, she narrates from her vantage point in the afterlife and watches as her sister, Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, her niece Bryony, and her teenage daughter, Gigi, begin to make sense of the tragedy.

A suspenseful drama focusing on marriage and fidelity, sisterhood, and the fractious bond between mothers and daughters, Black Dog Summer asks: In the wake of tragedy, where does all that dark energy linger? The youngest characters, Bryony and Gigi, cousins who are now brought together after Sally’s murder, are forced into sharing a bedroom. Bryony becomes confused and frightened by the violent energy stirred up and awakened by the massacre, while Gigi is unable to see beyond her deep grief and guilt. But they are not the only ones aware of the lurking darkness. Next door lives Lesedi, a reluctant witchdoctor who hides her mystical connection with the dead behind the façade of their affluent Johannesburg suburb.

As Gigi finally begins to emerge from her grief, the fragile healing process is derailed when she receives some shattering news, and in a mistaken effort to protect her cousin, puts Bryony’s life in imminent danger. Now Sally must find a way to prevent her daughter from making a mistake that could destroy the lives of all who are left behind.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster CA for providing me an ARC of this novel to read. I haven’t read much African literature/books set in Africa, so this book was a bit outside of my comfort zone in that sense, but the premise of the novel was intriguing nonetheless. This book will be available on 10 February 2015.

I read this book in one sitting. Not only because the ARC wasn’t that long (clocking less than 300 pages), but also because it was that gripping. We follow Adele and her family as they react and grieve for Sally’s death and their attempts to take care of Sally’s daughter, Gigi, in the aftermath of the massacre. The author curiosly chose to use Sally’s spirit to follow Adele, her husband Liam, Tyler (though not as extensively) and Bryony (primarily) to see what they’re thinking, how they’re responding; it’s an interesting way to narrate the story as it allows Sally’s memories of her estranged sister and her family to weave in and out of the narrative, providing readers with a sense of what their relationship was like before the incident that drove them apart.

Everyone is grieving in their own way, but Sally’s death and Gigi’s inclusion into their lives opens some old wounds and secrets, especially between Adele and Liam. The tragedy also sheds light on the complex relationship between sisters Adele and Sally, both before and after Liam enters the picture. To a lesser extent the story also sheds light on the complex relationship between Sally and her daughter Gigi, though I felt there were not enough flashback sequences between the two–especially outside of Sally’s love life–to understand the nuances in their sometimes-tense relationship.

I will say that as palpable as the emotions are in this novel, there are moments that remind me that the characters of Gigi and Bryony are still very young, a teenager or on the cusp of it. Given Gigi’s lifestyle, sometimes she comes across as wise beyond her years, other times she’s just a prickly teenager (her grief and mourning aisde). And Bryony’s understanding of what has happened to her cousin is child-like but captures perfectly how a child would understand such a situation. Early in the novel she was really irritating with all of the things that concerned only her, but it highlights the fact that that’s her worldview, that’s where she’s at at that stage. And she matures considerably over the course of the novel.

I don’t know anything about various African cultures in the South African region but the element of spirits and witch doctors adds a heightened sense of foreboding into the story. The symbol and reference to the black dog was really eerie. Lesedi’s presence in the story additionally provides a perspective to the social situation between blacks and whites in contemporary South Africa post-apartheid, the socio-economic reality, but she also helps Bryony in her character journey.

While the massacre itself is referred to over the course of the story, the actual events aren’t mentioned until later one; if you’re reading this review right now, I’d place a warning about it because it is horrific (to keep it PG). I actually had to skim that section because it was too graphic for me (and I was reading this late at night).

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Black Dog Summer was a gripping read that just catches your attention from the beginning and doesn’t let go until the last page. It’s both haunting and poignant in its examination of sisterly bonds, grief, and moving forward after tragedy. Readers of contemporary adult fiction will be interested in checking out this title.

Rating: ★★★★½

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2 Responses to “Review: Black Dog Summer”

  1. When I think about it, I don’t think I have read many (i any) African authors too.
    Contemporary fiction (especially one dealing with grief) is not my thing, but I am glad you enjoy Black Dog Summer. Great review!

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