The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan review: a feast of a book
Feel the dirty, sweaty Texas heat and hear the cicadas sing in this dark, invigorating debut, writes Joseph O’Connor
The Last Days of Summer
It’s been a remarkable few years for first novels by Irish or Ireland-based authors. Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, Henrietta McKervey, Austin Duffy, Audrey Magee, Mary Costello, Rob Doyle and others have published debuts of outstanding confidence and skill. Standards are high and still rising.
Add to this the renaissance of the Irish short story as seen in the debuts of Danielle McLaughlin, Donal Ryan, Claire-Louise Bennett and other writers published first or early in the excellent literary journal that is the Stinging Fly, and it’s clear that something unusual and welcome is happening. In the crowded pantheon of new talents, a further star has just appeared. This novel opens Vanessa Ronan’s literary career the way dynamite opens a safe.
Ronan, an American now living in Dublin, begins The Last Days of Summer with an ostensibly simple contrapuntal set-up that establishes conflicts right from the start. A long-term prisoner, Jasper Curtis, is about to be released from Huntsville State Penitentiary and is planning a return to his childhood home in a west Texas prairie town, where he’ll cohabit with his sister Lizzie and her two daughters, teenage Katie and 11-year-old Joanne. Lizzie, understandably enough, has ambivalent feelings about the imminent arrival of her house-guest but feels she has no choice in the matter. As she says to the local pastor, “Where else he gonna go?” By the time those words are reprised, in the novel’s closing lines, the world has been turned upside down.
The first thing to note about The Last Days of Summer is that it’s tremendously readable. It takes only a few pages for the reader to be mesmerised by the fear and uncertainty arising from the prose. Once hooked into the rhythms and menaces of Ronan’s deft storytelling with its moral grey areas and subtly organised hesitancies, it’s hard to put the novel down. Home comes Jasper, gradually revealed to be a monster and something of a sexual obsessive. The locals are uneasy and wish he’d take to the road. When he visits the town’s church, there are cries of “he shouldn’t be here” from the congregation. Yet, deeper loyalties soon start to flow, like underground water.
Vanessa Ronan’s tact as a storyteller is impressive; she is smart at knowing what and when to withhold, and this gives the book its striking three-dimensionality. She leaves the reader something to do. And the writing about family, especially young people, is hugely truthful and perceptive. Even in dysfunction there can be something that isn’t quite love but might be called that, just to save time.
Stylistically, Ronan writes with a slick control of rhythm, alternating long and short phrasings so as to charge her paragraphs with energy. This is switched-on writing, doing its job. At 350 pages, the book isn’t short but the momentum makes it feel leaner than it is. The reader is placed in the scene by cinematic jump-cuts and zingy vivid dialogue that melds the juiciness of popular speech with an odd, lowdown poetry. It’s one of those books where you find yourself reading the dialogue aloud.
Ronan is a storyteller of drop-dead gorgeous accuracy, able to summon a world into incarnation on the page. You feel the dirty, sweaty heat and hear the cicadas, chickadees and mockingbirds. But there’s also a darkly witty domesticity that helps to add texture, an air of resigned acceptance, even at seriously troubled and troubling moments. It’s tough thinking about her youngest daughter having to be in the house with this recent jailbird, but “‘She’ll be fine,’ [Lizzie] tells the mash, ears straining as she stirs in the milk, butter, sour cream.”
The sense of place is brilliant and will stir endless evocations and bittersweet recognitions in any reader familiar with the new American south. “He hadn’t expected the parole office to be in a strip mall. Not that he had spent much time wondering just where the office would be. In fact, he’d scarcely thought about it at all in the days since his release, but sandwiched beneath a nail salon and a Tex Mex restaurant was the last location Jasper would have imagined . . . ‘The goddamned a/c is broke’ were the first words his parole officer had said to him.”
If you’re looking for a novel that melds the pacey cleverness of a whipcrack-smart thriller with something approaching the high scrupulousness of what likes to think of itself as literary fiction, The Last Days of Summer could be for you. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything quite like this feast of a book. A number of prizes exist for first novels. If there’s any justice – and Vanessa Ronan’s dark worldview would sometimes make you wonder about that – this oddly beautiful and invigoratingly shocking book will be a contender for all of them. Read it before Hollywood comes.
Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is The Thrill of It All. Professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick, he will teach on this year’s UL/Frank McCourt creative writing summer school, in New York