Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Finished on: 30 August 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought on the kindle
To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favourite books of all time. Harper Lee’s well-loved classic is set during a long, tense summer.
A black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the lives oaks in the shelter square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three ‘o’ clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
It’s an atmosphere that stays with you. The heat pervades everything, and provides a backdrop which emphasises the incredible tension of the story. I vividly remember the sweaty courtroom, Calpurnia calling the children in for lemonade or they’ll ‘fry alive.’ Brilliant.
And it is no exaggeration to say that The Summer That Melted Everything, this impressive debut novel from Tiffany McDaniel, does hot, tense summer atmosphere better than any book I’ve read since. It kicks off with an awesome sense of foreboding which then builds and builds. High temperatures, high pressure, and tempers flaring. Our narrator Fielding’s mother says it best one day, after an uncharacteristic outburst:
“I’m not used to it bein’ so hot. None of us are. We’re not prepared for a heat like this. I can just imagine the things that’ll be had from here on out. We best get cool, and soon. We’re all in a volcano of trouble.”
The ‘volcano of trouble’ summer begins with Fielding’s father advertising in the newspaper for the devil to come and pay them a visit. Which it seems he does, in the form of Sal, a 13 year-old boy who is frighteningly intelligent and articulate, and changes everything for Fielding and his family.
It’s a coming of age story; a loss of innocence story; a terrifying indictment of the dark side of human nature, and the evil people are capable of if they become ‘severed from themselves… like puppets in the master’s claws’. It is powerful stuff, and moving to the point of being heartbreaking at times.
McDaniel’s writing is superb; a seductive and very effective combination of the poetic and the practical:
Ever since that night Sal cut her hair, Fedelia no longer spoke profanity. Her tone was calm. Like thawed-out honey. Her anger had been cut out with the ribbons and was swept up and dumped in the trash. She stood taller. Walked less clumsy. She’d even lost weight and was planning a cruise for the following spring.
Fielding’s home town of Breathed is populated by characters that feel at once original and like archetypes from mythology – from Dresden Delmar, Sal’s one-legged, abused love interest, to the amazing Aunt Fedelia who ties ribbons in her hair to symbolise all the times her husband has betrayed her. McDaniel is also the best character-namer since Toni Morrison. Autopsy Bliss anyone?
The central mystery of the story is whether Sal is indeed the devil he claims to be, or just a lost little boy. Or both. And McDaniel is brilliantly ambiguous on this. So much about Sal defies explanation: his poetic articulacy; his insight into people’s secrets and hidden feelings; where he came from in the first place. But with Sal, as with all the characters, McDaniel doesn’t fall back on easy cliches*. We are always on our toes. With one possible exception there are no all out ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Evil is made all the more real when it’s mixed up with shades of grey.
The parallels with To Kill A Mockingbird don’t end with the heat. Sal is black in a town full of white people, and there is a lot around prejudices and mob rule that take over when people feel scared, angry and want someone to blame. When evil, whether real or imagined, is used as an excuse for evil. And Fielding’s narrative voice does also have echoes of Lee’s Scout.
The story is primarily told from the perspective of Fielding as a 13 year-old, although this is framed in reminiscences from his elderly self 70 years later (meaning these sections are actually set in 2054, a fact that isn’t really acknowledged – and it doesn’t contain any futuristic elements that I spotted.)
Old man Fielding is a tragic figure, who provides a perspective on quite how life-shattering the consequences were of that long, hot summer:
I was never meant to be a violent man. I was meant to be my father’s son. My mother’s. But in the end, I became the son of that summer. That summer is my father. It is my mother. It is my violence’s blame.
The Summer That Melted Everything is a stunningly good book, but not without its flaws. Some elements of the story are predictable. One event in particular you see coming a mile off, because of the way characters are described. But I have to say, while I am not often a fan of predictability, a side effect in this case is that it does add to the tension. A dark, looming dramatic irony.
McDaniel does also indulge in a jarringly cheesy chapter-ending on occasion. Some events in the story are so moving, and so beautiful. They don’t need a summary that reads like it should be set onto a picture of a sunset and uploaded to facebook.
And so we were, on into the night, two boys sharing a light and building a way, one leaf at a time.
There are a few like this, and while they do momentarily break the spell, they don’t change the fact that this book is a cracker.
I remember when I studied English Literature GCSE many years ago, there were five aspects of the writing we were supposed to analyse in our essays – from characterisation, to plot and structure. I don’t remember them all, but the one I always struggled with was setting and atmosphere. Ugh. Setting and atmosphere, how dull when you could be talking about your characters.
But the biggest success of this book is that the setting and atmosphere are the stars of the show. As the tension builds to a crescendo of awfulness in the final events of the plot, we understand that the atmosphere is the biggest evil of all, because it has driven people mad. Their behaviour seemed right to them because they were living in that hot, angry ‘volcano of trouble.’
Isn’t that what madness is, after all? Clarity to the beholder, insanity to the witnessing world.
*Still no accents? Boo.