When Sally is brutally murdered on her farming commune in South Africa, her spirit remains tethered to this world and the people she left behind. Similar to The Lovely Bones, Miranda Sherry’s debut novel Black Dog Summer is about a family dealing with grief and, more significantly, with all the issues left unresolved before death. Sally watches as her teenage daughter Gigi falls into a deep depression alleviated only by drugs. Her estranged sister Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, and their daughter Bryony are all struggling to come to terms with Sally’s death, and with the addition of a silent, troubled teen into their home.
Sherry’s writing is beautiful, and I love how she describes her characters’ lives as threads of stories that Sally must follow before she can move on. Sherry also weaves in a bit of a supernatural feel — the darkness Bryony senses in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder takes the form of a black dog out to harm her and her cousin. Bryony’s next door neighbour Lesedi is a reluctant sangoma, someone in touch with the spiritual realm and can communicate with the dead, and anchors the story’s shifting between both worlds.
My favourite passage in the novel comes early on, almost immediately after Sally is killed. She hears a noise, a “whispering, humming, singing, screaming awfulness.” She soon realizes that
The noise comes from Africa’s stories being told. Millions upon millions of them, some told in descending liquid notes like the call of the Burchells’ coucal before the rain, and some like the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic. Some of these stories are ancient and wear fossilized coats of red dust, and others are so fresh that they gleam with umbilical wetness…
[My family’s story is] just one story amongst millions, and yet it has become so loud now that it drowns out the others. It is howling at me, raging, demanding my attention. I look closer to find that this small, bright thread of 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.
Isn’t that beautiful? From that passage on, like Sally, I too felt compelled to follow this story to its end.
I also really like how Sherry connects the spirit world with the elemental one. Sally feels her being a spirit most keenly when Lesedi looks at her, and ironically, she is both most disconnected from the physical world and intimately connected to its elements. She has become an Ancestor, one with the millions upon millions of stories of the past and connected as well somehow to the potential of the future. What a beautiful way to think of the afterlife!
Black Dog Summer is a very emotional book. Much of the story within the physical world is told through Bryony’s point of view, and as a tween, she is barely able to cope with what has happened to her aunt. She looks up the term “massacre” in the dictionary, and repeats this definition several times. And indeed, when faced with something as incomprehensible as murder (not just murder, but mass murder), when having to deal with the overwhelming grief of a cousin you barely know who is now your roommate, when unable to comprehend the rising tensions between your parents, how can anyone cope?
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, page turner of a book. Like Sally, we as readers are invested in the story while necessarily being detached from it. And like Sally, all we can do is hope it all works out for this family.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Please note that the passage quoted above is from the ARC, and may be edited prior to publication.