Sunday 23 October 2016

The ex-con and an unforgiving shadow

Fiction: The Last Days of Summer, Vanessa Ronan, Penguin Ireland, pbk, 384 pages, €16.99

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Promising newbie: Vanessa Ronan
Promising newbie: Vanessa Ronan
The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

The third sentence in The Last Days of Summer goes like this: "When they were children, they would lie beneath those heavens and marvel at how big God must be to paint the sky that way."

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It's an inauspicious start, because it feels tired. I've read something close to this before, more than once, and heard something like it in a dozen movies or TV shows.

That's my main issue with this debut novel by Vanessa Ronan, a young American living in Ireland: too much of it feels second-hand. Even the set-up and setting are a wee bit hackneyed.

Jasper Curtis is released from prison after a long stretch for a very serious crime. (We don't find out until near the end the exact nature, but it is absolutely horrendous - the sort of barbarity that seems impossible to ever atone for. Wisely, Ronan keeps us in the dark, mostly, so by the time the full truth is revealed, we've developed at least a little sympathy for Jasper.)

Anyway, he returns to his small Texan town and moves in with his sister Lizzie and her daughters Katie, a teenager, and 11-year-old Joanne. Jasper basically has nowhere else to go; Lizzie, you feel, doesn't want him there, but familial obligations leave her no choice. Katie is suspicious and prickly; the younger girl is more innocent and open, so her and Jasper forge a friendship of sorts. The town, however, isn't so forgiving.

As Jasper tries to resume his life, the past keeps intruding; his grievous crime casts an enormous shadow over everything. The book slowly moves towards a denouement that is shocking and hair-raisingly violent - both in deed and intention - though there is some redemption also.

I actually don't mind this familiar set-up too much. Sure, it's been done a thousand times, but that's presumably because it's a good one: ex-con trying to go straight, to make things right, and others preventing that, albeit for understandable reasons. There's an inherent dramatic tension, an edgy balancing-act between hope, which we the readers desire, and impending disaster. And redemption is immensely appealing as a theme.

But The Last Days of Summer doesn't pull it off. The book is much too slow-moving for four-fifths of the way, and the prose and characterisation aren't enough to carry this lack of action.

The writing is good in places, with some lovely phrasing here and there, but garbled and overwritten in others - I had to reread a few sentences before I got the sense of them.

Ronan also does that stylistic thing of using apostrophes in the dialogue - shootin', goin', alrigh', this don' concern you - which I find annoying. There's no need to drop in the apostrophe; their pronunciation should be apparent from context, and we all know what Texans sound like anyway.

Donal Ryan and Joseph O'Connor are quoted here - Joe rhapsodises that The Last Days of Summer is "a wonderful book from a major talent"; Donal goes for the five-pack of "powerful, formidable… gripping, dark and compelling".

On encountering encomia like that, I do find myself asking: were they even reading the same book as me? The Last Days of Summer is by no means bad, but it's nowhere near "compelling".

And yes, I appreciate these things are subjective. But surely fulsome praise like "wonderful", "formidable" and "major talent" should be reserved for a classic work or truly great author, rather than an okay first effort by a promising newbie? Oh, for a ban on front-cover bumpf.

Having said that, I don't blame Ronan for that nonsense.

And as said, she definitely has promise but I wasn't blown away by this one.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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