Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Book Review: Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry

Pros: interesting characters, beautiful writing, heartwrenching story

Cons: will make you cry - a lot

When Sally, aka Monkey, was killed on the animal rescue farm where she was living with her daughter, she expected that to be the end of her story.  But the ongoing stories of her estranged sister, curious niece, brother-in-law she was in love with, and catatonic daughter, prevent her from leaving.

Set in South Africa, the book has some speculative elements (the spirit watching over its family and the Sangoma that lives next door), but is essentially a story about family and dealing with loss.  Sally’s spirit follows several characters, allowing you to really get to know them.  The family dynamics become more clear as time goes on, and you see how mistakes of the past compound and form emotional trials in the present.  It’s also highly effective that a lot of the story is told from the perspective of the 11 year old niece, who doesn’t know what the word ‘genocide’ means and has to look it up on her brother’s computer and whose curiosity and nosiness subsequently gains her knowledge she’s not ready for.

The writing is beautifully descriptive, with a lot of sensory information telling you how things look, smell and feel.  The metaphors used are unique, but work within the context of the story.  For example, “The morning sun beats through the muslin blinds of the bedroom window, making the room look as if it’s been pumped full of golden gas”.

The ending, where you finally learn the extent of what happened at the farm when Sally dies, is gut-wrenching, but don’t think that’s the only sad part of the book.  Books have made me cry in the past - for a chapter or two, when a character I loved died or something else irrevocably sad happened to them, but I haven’t cried this hard in years.  From the first few pages this book grabbed my heart strings and then kept pulling them over and over again.

I loved the portrayal of the Sangoma and how her story was resolved.  I’m less sure about the massacre and the ‘black men are coming with machetes’ message of the main story.  I don’t know enough about South Africa to know if this is still a modern fear or if the book plays on a remembrance of apartheid (which, though it feels like it happened a long time ago really didn’t).  But the book was written by a South African woman.

I loved this book.  I loved the descriptive language.  I loved the characters.  I loved the setting.  If you’re looking for something different, give this a try.

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