Saturday, 22 February 2020

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd
Published in the UK by Two Roads on the 6th February 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve.

In Suffolk, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from the Napoleonic wars, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes beset by riots - rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora - but none could escape its effects.

In a time when there is so much confusion and uncertainty about the potential for devastation from climate change, looking back just over two centuries to 1816 can give us an idea. In her new novel, The Year Without Summer, Guinevere Glasfurd does just that. Ash fallout from a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia changed weather patterns around the globe, albeit only for months rather than permanently, but the effects were catastrophic. This unusually styled novel interweaves six people's very different experiences. Each of them take turns to speak to us readers, sometimes directly, sometimes in the third person or through letters and, as the individual narrative lines don't ever converge, the approach felt to me more like reading a short story collection at the beginning. It wasn't until I had met characters three or four times that I became really drawn into their stories.

I did think that Glasfurd had picked an interesting range of people and locations on which to focus. I was first drawn to The Year Without Summer for its Mary Shelley connection, but actually ended up feeling most moved by the stories of Sarah Hobbs and Hope Peter. I knew little about the dire social situation in England at that time - although can now see it's pretty much what our current Tory government would like to return us all to! This is the time of the Luddite Rebellions and Glasfurd shows similar acts of unrest across fenland farming communities where jobs are being usurped by new machines and Common lands stolen by rich landowners, leaving thousands of semi-skilled farm workers unemployed and starving through no fault of their own.

The Year Without Summer is a harsh read on several levels because of the horrors of its subjects. I wish I could now unsee Henry's grim descriptions of Sumbawa island and its surrounding seas, for example. Glasfurd's prose is beautiful however and I appreciated that contrast. This is very much a historical fiction novel and, I think, a well researched one which brings the events of 1815 and 1816 vividly to life on its pages. The book could also be seen as prophetic fiction. Its starving, transient climate refugees, its depictions of violent selfishness on the parts of those who have not yet lost everything, its unpredictable and savage storms and floods, its all-consuming droughts and wildfires. This all happened two hundred years ago with just a one degree dip in temperatures. How much worse will be the effects of a two, three, or four degree temperature rise?

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  1. Wow, now that sounds like an interesting book of what was going on with all these different people.

    1. I'd had no real idea about this volcano before so it was quite a shock to see the global impact its eruption had

  2. I want to go to Indonesia and have been to Switzerland, so seeing those two settings in history in particular made me intrigued about this book. But it is so good that it is about climate change and discusses it in a historical setting. It might show us what is to come, and what some of the signs or effects might be. I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about the narratives not connecting as that is what I am used to, but it might be a good change...

    1. The separate narratives construction does work well but, yes, did take a bit of getting used to. I think I prefer it to novels where storylines are rammed together just to get a convenient conclusion!