A novel about the aftermath of a sudden death shouldn’t be warm and uplifting, but Australian neuropsychologist-turned-novelist Kylie Ladd’s Last Summer is above all a tale of lightness. It’s also absorbing, and harmonious in spite of the many schisms it describes.
The death is that of Rory, a 39-year-old family man who collapses from an aortic aneurysm at a practice for his social cricket team. Rory was beloved by his circle of close friends: his sister Kelly and her husband Joe, James and the aloof Anita, Nick and Laine, and Pete and Trinity. There are small children, jobs and businesses, unvoiced resentments and unfinished or yet-to-begin romantic business. The loss of Rory, whose mischievous, rebellious persona was the group’s fulcrum, creates an immediate and predictable fragmentation.
Ladd opts for probably the best, and certainly the most straightforward, way to tell such a character-driven story – she gives several characters two or three chapters each. It reads as a series, over the ensuing year, of chronological vignettes offering glimpses into lives unified by shared history.
The death occurs in the first chapter and is seen from the viewpoint of Nick, Rory’s oldest and closest friend. In his absorption, Nick fails to notice Laine’s subsequent reconnection with a past love, a subplot which exemplifies Ladd’s close-reading of the effects of grief. She doesn’t care to show us the wailing and gnashing, but rather the real ramifications of loss experienced by those too young to be especially accustomed to it. As one character turns away from their own spouse, they might turn towards another’s – everyone seeking comfort, but causing greater ruptures.
The novel is unmistakably Australian, with every page seeming sun-drenched, from the barbecues to the after-work cricket practices and the Antipodean lingo – one character’s incipient football career ended when he “did his ankle”, while an irate Joe accuses his distracted teammates of playing like a “pack of [expletive] sheilas!”
And in its study of the male-female dynamic – much of the action seems driven by grief-heightened hormones – Last Summer is, unexpectedly, a novel about gender politics. The women are headstrong and self-possessed, at least in domains familiar to them. Laine is an accomplished architect, Trinity a social worker, Kelly a business owner, and Colleen, Rory’s widow, a former head nurse in an A&E department.
Anita, a stay-at-home mother, feels young, inadequate and alien by comparison, but it is she who acts most assertively in relation to her marriage, and Laine who turns out to have the weakest hold on her sense of self.
Women control Last Summer’s middle-class suburbia, if not the world, and whether these marriages fracture or endure will depend on the choices made solely by the wives. Joe is portrayed as lost and yearning, for his wife, whose unusually close relationship with her brother only intensifies with his death. Another husband is spurned altogether.
Ladd’s characters are not especially introspective, and their responses to the tragedy are entirely consistent with the personalities she gives them. The story of grief and its corollaries is one that will never grow tired, and Ladd’s version, vivid and unsentimental, is oddly heartening, and well worth reading for it.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones