Summer Gone

Description

266 pages
$32.95
ISBN 0-676-97190-3
DDC C813'.54

Year

1999

Contributor

Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.

Review

In this haunting first novel by the author of the critically acclaimed
The Danger Tree (1992), an ill-fated canoe trip is the setting for a
divorced father’s attempts to pass on to the 12-year-old son from whom
he is estranged a memory as enduring as “a perfect summer outing.”
The narrative is constructed as a web of seamless shifts between the
canoe trip and the memories of the protagonist, Bay Newling—memories
that include a summer spent at a boys’ camp, a chance encounter in the
vestibule of a funeral home, a summer idyll culminating in betrayal, the
passage between the ringing of a telephone and news of a tragedy. Like a
motif in a musical composition, each memory is the object of numerous
revisitations, each of which brings further revelations. Such technical
ambition risks confusion, but Bay’s memories are so vividly evoked and
so resoundingly individualized that the abrupt transitions between them
are never disorienting. Like so many of Macfarlane’s Globe and Mail
columns, Summer Gone is a structural marvel.

Memory as a bulwark against change, in all its manifestations (most
notably mortality) and the persistence of hope “against all
evidence” are dominant themes. For Bay, these themes are embodied in
the northern summer: “It was the way memory curved back through time,
the way hope reached forward, that made summer seem enduring.” The
qualifying “seem” is in recognition of the fact that the three
generations of characters who flicker in and out of Bay’s
consciousness are no more immune from the corrosive effects of time than
the northern setting is immune from environmental degradation. The
unofficial motto of the summer camp Bay attends as a boy: “Summer is
the stillness between things,” is courtesy of the camp’s director, a
Presbyterian minister who bemuses his young charges with sermons on
extinction and nothingness. At one point, that summer stillness is
likened to “the emptiness that lies between an outstretched hand and
someone who is no longer there.” At his parents’ funeral, Bay
concludes his eulogy with an observation that recalls the devastating
simplicity of the director’s sermons: “They were there. Then they
weren’t there any more.”

Macfarlane expresses his sombre themes with a deftness and wry humor
that will be familiar to admirers of his Globe columns. Bay, a magazine
editor, is regarded as “useful but unnecessarily literary and vaguely
old-fashioned” by his marketing-mad publisher. Bay’s dying
father-in-law, a “faithful atheist,” insists that his ashes be put
out with the trash, with the proviso “Regular pickup. No goddamn
recycling.”

Ultimately, though, it is the haunting quality that prevails. For
readers who have had their own northern summer encounters, this quality
will resonate all the more. Summer Gone was shortlisted for the Giller
Prize.

Citation

Macfarlane, David., “Summer Gone,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 17, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/563.