Title: Black Dog Summer
Author: Miranda Sherry
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
Black Dog Summer is a tragic and moving tale of loss, grief, and familial relationships both good and bad. It’s an interesting perspective–from the perspective of Sally’s ghost–comparable to novels such as Lovely Bones. Sally as a narrator, connects to each character through story “threads,” each thread a different colour and intensity. She is everywhere and nowhere all at once. She’s is detached in that as a spirit, she does not have any tangible human feelings or emotions, but she still deeply cares for her family and through memory she is able to still able to connect with them.
There are clouds of emotion swirling through the Wilding home. Adele and her husband Liam fight over Liam’s secret friendship with Sally and her daughter Gigi; Bryony is too young and innocent to understand the pain and grief of losing a parent and so she rejects her cousin’s presence; Tyler is a pubescent boy, trying to navigate his hormones in tandem with the grief that has entered their home; and Gigi is paralyzed with anguish and guilt, unable to confront her feelings. The relationships are intense and intimate. Each deals with death in a certain way, yet they all struggle to understand how each other is coping with the loss.
There is a distinct lack of communication between family members that, if remedied, could have solved a large number of the problems that these characters face. For me, it was frustrating that no one could just talk to explain their own situation, but that’s the heart of this dysfunctional family. Relationships have long been broken because of a lack of communication. They cannot empathize with one another because they cannot share their own personal experiences. Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but the characters do experience real growth and understanding as the story develops and unfolds.
My only criticism of the book is the way that Gigi’s story line was handled. It is revealed in the end that Gigi is suffering from some serious, undiagnosed PTSD, complete with hallucinations and flashbacks. Whether it’s actually PTSD, or just extreme suffering, it’s never really exposed to and dealt with by the adult characters. Bryony lies about Gigi’s dangerous episode, allowing Gigi to come forward in her own time, but I found that this conclusion really angered me. As readers, we get to know Gigi so well. The signs that she is greatly suffering are so prominent that it’s astounding that none of the older characters are sensitive to her struggle. At the end, instead of coming forward to acknowledge that Gigi might need some intense, psychological assistance, the whole matter is swept under the rug and everything is tied up in a neat little bow, as if she’ll recover on her own. Maybe she will. But she’s also a 14 year old girl who witnessed something that no human being should ever have to see. I was dissatisfied with this conclusion. However, don’t let this dissuade you from reading.
Overall, it’s an unbelievably heart-breaking story about a girl who loses her mother, and the family that struggles to take her in and deal with their own personal grief. It’s an intense and well-written story that demonstrates not only the faults of humanity, but the compassion and resilience of a person to overcome tragedy.