Set in Britain during a heatwave in 1995, the protagonist July is 10 years old. She lives with her step-sister, step-mother and father in an unnamed village by the sea. Her grandparents also live locally. Yet despite the apparent normality of her life, she struggles to get any straight answers to straight questions about the circumstances of her mother’s death. It is not exactly a secret, there are records, but aged 10 you don’t really know about records.
July makes notes of questions that occur to her but finds that she cannot ask openly; she dare not ask her father anything because he has a volatile temper and when he loses his temper things start getting scary quickly. The relationship between these two is one of the prime points of the story, I felt.
But then some aspects of the work start to feel a bit unlikely. For example, everybody tells July that they cannot talk about her mother’s death because they get upset talking about it, but we slowly learn that there is a much darker reason for their silence. That’s great. But when July launches her own investigation into the matter after a teacher suggests she might write a project about her mother I started to doubt. Query: would a teacher suggest/insist to a ten year old that he or she writes a school project on a deceased parent? Most unlikely, I thought.
Koch is good on the horrors of domestic violence – how everyone is too busy or too embarrassed or self-absorbed to notice the suffering of others. Also how victims make excuses for the perpetrators or blame themselves for the abuse which they suffer. The author states that this was one of her main aims in writing the book and for me it was the most successful aspect of the work.
Reading it, I was reminded of W. H. Auden’s ekphrastic poem based on Breughel’s Icarus ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Despite the fact that a child turns up to school with bruises and neighbours overhear shouting and screaming, nothing is done. (There is quite a long list of phone numbers and information at the end of this book, if you are a victim of domestic violence or know of someone who is).
July’s father is frankly terrifying. The plot rackets along and I read the book in two sittings. But I did feel that even though Koch keeps up the tension, the plot gets the better of the characterisation which to me was a shame.
There are inconsistencies in the plot. For example, we are told that July likes to spend Saturday at home in the hope that her father will notice her, buy her an ice cream, suggest they watch TV together. He never does – but she waits anyway. Then later we are told that July knows what the expression ‘released on bail’ means from the hours she had spent watching the Bill with her father.
July asks the local vicar why her mother is not buried in the churchyard but he doesn’t really give her a direct answer preferring instead some convoluted action of leaving record books open for inspection on a table! Why?
And the heatwave. Yes there was a heatwave in the UK in 1995 I’m not disputing that – it’s a meteorological fact! But since the UK is more normally cold and wet than it is baking hot, I found the constant references to extreme heat throughout the work – coupled with the lack of any geographical reference points real or imagined – detracted from the story and made the location vague.
I was not persuaded either, by the narrative voice since for me, July and her step-sister Sylvie show a degree of emotional maturity and insight that felt nearer to age 13 or 14 than age 10.
Although I enjoyed reading this book, I am not currently tempted to read more by this author.
Thank you @Penguin Random House and @Netgalley for approving me for a review copy of this book.