Lake Balaton is the highlight of Hungarian summers, a place of sunshine, swimming, fried fish and lángos, and, depending on the shore, party towns or vine-covered hill slopes.
That’s not quite how Beth Lowe, The Book of Summers’ narrator and protagonist, remembers it. When, as nine-year-old Erzsi – Hungary’s own version of Beth – she first visits it in the newly democratised Hungary of 1990, it’s her mother’s country she’s discovering. But the family holiday is cut short when Marika, daughter of 1956 refugees, decides Hungary is her real home and leaves English husband and daughter to make their way back to the Devon family cottage.
Fast forward 20 years and Beth, now a London-based 30-year-old, receives an unexpected visit from her father bearing a parcel from Hungary, a country she’s sought to forget since age 16.
This is where The Book of Summers starts, as Beth removes the wrapping paper, opens the book she finds in it and, flicking through the pages of photographs it contains, abandons herself to her long-repressed memories.
That something terrible and unexpected occurred in the last year covered by The Book of Summers, when Beth was in her 16th year, the reader already can fathom. What that was, how it came about and what came out of it, is the purpose of this very seasonal coming-of-age story.
Art imitates life
Hall, who makes her début as a writer with this novel, shares some features with her heroine: she, too, has a Hungarian mother and an English father. She, too, according to her biography, called the Devon countryside home, except for summer trips to the continent after the fall of the Berlin Wall made Hungary a more accessible country. The resemblance probably stops here but it is these memories of warm, sunny, somewhat exotic summers that provide much of the background.
Away from Balaton, the mother and her new painter-companion’s retreat at Villa Serena – in the hills but within sight of Esztergom basilica’s cupola – provides a base for Erzsi as she explores this country so different from England, a place “where heavy-headed ponies pulled ramshackle carts and stacks of painted pottery were piled at the sides of the road like a dropped load”, where “low-flying storks fly by, strange-looking birds with hunched wings, their long legs trailing behind them”.
From summer to summer as she leaves behind her caring but absent-minded father to visit her mother, she grows up in leaps and bounds, heeding her mother’s advice to “follow her heart”, and (somewhat predictably) falling for the neighbours’ teenage son until an ill-starred second trip to Balaton shatters her understanding of herself and her relationship to her parents.
Hungary – the quaintness of its 1990s countryside, szalonna parties and mosquito-infested evenings – provides a well-illustrated background but it’s one that could have taken place almost anywhere else: the crux of the story is one of growing up and coming to terms with one’s past after tragedy strikes.
The novel is carefully constructed, a constant to-and-fro between past and present as Beth recalls each passing Hungarian summer. Hall’s writing is very vivid, sometimes almost too much so with its constant appendage of adjectives and comparisons trying their best to convey every nuance of vision, thought and feeling to the reader.
It is also very successful at avoiding any hint of what is about to come, so much so, in fact, that one may be left wondering for much of the book whether anything is going to happen at all apart from trips to ice-cream parlours, tiffs with friends and parents, and school reminiscences. But the long journey to Beth’s sixteenth summer is lightened by the prose and, in hindsight, its evocation of passing childhood in two parallel countries helps to build up her character – one of the keys to understanding the unexpected but eventually hopeful denouement.
Buy the Book
The Book of Summers
By Emylia Hall
Headline Review, 2012
352 pages. Paperback, GBP 7.99