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Review Summer's Dark Waters
In reading Simon Williams’ dark modern fairy tale: Summer's Dark Waters I was transported away to other places on various levels. Back to when I was eleven to begin with. There was a book back then that blew my mind. A year before receiving that book I had walked into Lincoln School in Kathmandu barely able to string together more than a few words of English. Like a proper little Dutchman I had loudly introduced myself to my new class by announcing really loudly: “I am Nils. Where does I shit?” (the unfortunate ‘sh’ there is a typical way for Dutch people to mangle English into a pulp).
A couple of very brave English as a Second Language teachers processed me within a year; I was enthusiastic about learning the new language and they stimulated that. They also discovered that I was a voracious reader and encouraged me to plunder the school library. One of my teachers gave me a gift to celebrate my departure from the E.S.L. classes; a book called Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. I still have that book thirty-five years on and cherish it because I believe Paterson performed magic – just using words- in writing that book. She implied that there was a huge fantastical world out in the woods where her protagonist interacted with all sorts of the wicked, weird and wonderful. As a child it never struck me as odd that she didn’t actually describe that aspect of the world of Terabithia because my mind was full of it. It was only later in adult years, talking about the book with a friend who loved it too, that we realised that our respective Terabithias could not have been more different. Convinced scenes of magical adventure were in the book I tried to locate them but I couldn’t find them. I had made them up myself and strengthened those images every time I read the book, which was a lot. The book had essentially become part of my consciousness.
Simon Williams too has worked such magic into Summer’s Dark Waters, not entirely unaided for there are wonderful illustrations by Ankolie who really has managed to capture the mood of the writing quite sublimely. It was a pleasure to encounter the images and take them in as it really did support the story well.
Williams doesn’t waste time, the required exposition doesn’t strike the reader as such because they are woven around a series of odd occurrences which are full of possibilities which encourages the reader to start making guesses as to what will happen next. The more titbits we are fed the more we crave the whole picture and this leads us on well past our bedtime because this is certainly a book with that infuriating quality that it is hard to put down. I was a little surprised to find that much of the perspective is Amber’s and not Joe’s because I had started reading in the expectation that it was Joe’s story. However, Amber is a delightful voice and seeing Joe through her eyes as well as his own perception certainly works well in getting a clear idea of who Joe and Amber are. I certainly got the impression that the author knows them well and was clearly comfortable around them.
Events speed to a climax where another well-measured dose of knowledge means all is changed forever and we are propelled into a different world. From that moment onwards Williams really starts to shine. In wanting to maintain the narrative flow he has limited exposition to this new world which is clever because sometimes these types of books suddenly stall as an author feels the need to explain all the wonderful details and the reader is suddenly listening to a tour guide. Essentially, various characters admit: We don’t know much about the world. Enough to get by but that is all and suddenly the horizon – and it is implied this horizon could be endless – is shrouded by veils of mystery. What is out there in the mists? Over the hills and far away? The mists are my own imagery, already Williams is doing what Paterson did in Bridge to Terabithia, allowing – even encouraging- me to fill in this blank canvas myself. The only parts of the world we encounter in Summer’s Dark Waters are the ones required to keep the flow going alongside a few hints and interesting things to think about – the behaviour of the animals for instance.
Added to this is the suggestion that there are many levels to the ‘monsters’ we encounter, probably as many levels as some of them have names. The names they reveal to Amber and Joe couldn’t be more average and they appear to be human though there are clear signs that they are not, as well as dire warnings that it is best not to see these creatures when they take their masks off. Of some we know that they were ‘human’ at some point, guilty of monstrous thoughts and behaviour and these gave me the chills. What precisely they are, and how they interact with the unknown world is left tantalizingly vague; though we know they are powerful and retain those powers when they find a way to our own world. It is in that last world that I woke up from the story at its end, realizing I was holding a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and craving for more. In short: Williams knows how to spin a yarn and has written a remarkable story which I have placed near Bridge to Terabithia on my personal list of great children’s fiction – needless to say both books can be found on top playing King of the Hill.
As for Williams, if he doesn’t produce a sequel with the same speed as his narrative flow, then I for one, will start to devise evil medieval torture devices in a dark dungeon somewhere in the Terra Incognita of the world he transported me to as an encouragement to reveal more of the new beginnings for Amber and Joe.