‘The Greeks thought it came from … drawing a line around a shadow on a wall when somebody you loved was about to go away’ – A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

“I don’t know if the huldra is real, but I know that she exists.”  So says Liv, the narrator of this, Burnside’s eighth novel, as she attempts to discover how one can believe in something one knows rationally not to be true.  

Liv Rossdale lives on the remote Norwegian island of Kvaløya in the Arctic Circle with her reclusive artist mother, Angelika, who has moved there to be ‘unburdened of time’.  Her only friend is the elderly, Kyrre Opdahl, who is obsessed with the old stories and legends believing them to be true ‘dark warnings about what the woods or the sea or the mountains can do, if you don’t show them enough respect’.  It is Kyrre who tells Liv the story of the huldra, a mythological creature that takes the form of a girl, but who is “actually a hideous troll, with a hideously ugly face and the tail of a cow under her bright red dress” who lures men and boys to their death with her beauty and promise of love.

The story begins with Liv, now twenty eight, recounting the summer she turned eighteen when two local brothers drown in unusual circumstances having recently befriended the almost feral child, Maia.  In a small community like this, rumours about the cause of the accidents spread quickly; Kyrre believes that the huldra is responsible.  Although the novel starts with the death of these brothers, this isn’t a murder mystery or a crime fiction story.  In fact their deaths hardly feature at all.  We learn very little about them and there’s no investigation (that we are privy to) into their deaths and yet the disturbance that the incidents cause ripples unseen through the narrative like the huldra herself.

A summer visitor, Martin Crosbie, rents Kyrre’s hytte for the entire summer and to entertain herself Liv does what she always does and spies on him.  He makes Liv feel uncomfortable, however, and one day when he is out she breaks into the hytte and discovers more than she’d bargained for.  Liv, influenced heavily by Kyrre’s stories and picture books, starts to believe that Maia is the huldra and when Martin Crosbie falls under Maia’s spell and then subsequently disappears into the Sound, Liv’s mind and her world start to spiral out of control.  

It is here that the title comes into its own.  This is not just a story about people drowning in suspicious circumstances.  It is a novel about an extremely isolated young woman coming to terms with the end of school and the possibilities ahead of her and perhaps having a nervous breakdown when she can no longer separate fact from fiction.  Liv, like her environment, is isolated in many ways, and the influences she does have on her are unusual to say the least.  Her mother is constantly working alone in her studio and has little social interaction, other than with Kyrre and a collection of men that Liv refers to as the ‘suitors’ who come every Saturday morning for tea and cake.  Liv is also isolated from her own past as she has no idea who her father is, not even his name, as her mother never speaks of him.  When her father’s lover contacts her unexpectedly and Liv is forced to go to England to meet him, Liv really starts to lose her grip on reality and seems to feel the presence of the huldra lurking in every shadow.

Burnside uses the spooky, unsettling nature of the midnattsol, the midnight sun, to great effect.  The coming of summer with its endless white nights and ‘silvery white gloaming’ creates a timeless, dream-like feel for both the reader and the characters.  The eeriness is compounded by the fact that the events in the story happened ten years earlier, so the whole story is tinged with the haziness of memory and the consequent unreliability.  The retrospective nature of the story wouldn’t work in lesser hands; we’d question its veracity and cast it aside.  Burnside, however, uses the technique to create incredible tension and fear and we find ourselves believing in the existence of the huldra in the way Liv believes it and the end, although hauntingly ambiguous, doesn’t disappoint.

There is very little in this story that is extraneous and every detail and apparent side track is in fact adding greater complexity and depth. Your reviewer particularly liked a section where one of Mother’s suitors, Ryvold, speaks to Liv about the origin of art and painting in particular:  

“The Greeks thought it came from … drawing a line around a shadow on a wall when somebody you loved was about to go away, so you would have something to remember them by.”  

In effect, this is what Liv is doing in writing this story and when the final character to disappear does so, Ryvold’s words to Liv feel strangely prescient.

Any Cop?: For me, yes.  In a way it feels like a first novel.  By that I mean that it feels fresh and exciting, that Burnside couldn’t wait to get this story out of him and that energy carries you through the story, even through the moments of apparent calm when not much happens.  I loved the mix of reality and myth and the eerie hint of the supernatural.  This is a beautifully crafted story where, as one would expect from a writer who is also an accomplished poet, every word is worked on and polished until the whole work shines.  His descriptions of the natural world are stunning and I immediately wanted to go and see this striking place for myself.  This is a story about how we see the world and how we use maps to understand our place in it, whether those maps are old legends or paintings.  It’s also about the gap between what we actually see and what we think we see and how that is blurred along its edges.  In the end we are left not quite knowing whether Liv has had a breakdown or if the huldra really did worm her way into the lives of these remote people, but the journey to ambiguity is tense, sinister and beautiful.

Julie Fisher

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