One Deadly Summer by Sébastien Japrisot

Review published on July 13, 2018.

You will not see the final brutal twist coming in this clever thrilling novel. One Deadly Summer creates an atmosphere of tension and anticipation that is so strong it’s a little unnerving. The story advances with every chapter but our understanding of events and the people behind them is constantly having to be reassessed by the alternative perspectives presented by differing narrators, opening up little windows on the truth. There are things are going on right in front of us that we absorb but will only fully make sense of at the very end of the novel. One Deadly Summer has a beautiful sense of timing and balance, with a denouement that is shocking and darkly poetic – this is Greek tragedy in a modern landscape. There is such a natural flow to the story, a logic, that the unexpected twists all make perfect sense. One Deadly Summer is a tale of obsession and secrets, of misguided loyalty and trust, of lies and revenge and a descent into madness.

1970s – Florimond (Fiorimondo/Ping Pong) lives with his mother and two brothers, Mickey and Booboo, on a rural farm in Southern France. He is a mechanic. The son of an Italian immigrant father, now dead, a man who lugged a pianola across country, surviving on tips and on odd jobs. “We’ve still got the pianola. It’s in the barn. For years we left it out in the yard, and the rain blackened and blistered it. Now it’s the dormice….” he says. All the while Florimond is setting the rustic scene, we know that the little things he drops into his story about the people around him are important. Take, for instance, the admission that he hit Elle, he claims it was only the one time, or when he lets us know about her row with Booboo. Elle is the daughter of a German woman, called “Eva Braun” behind her back, who came to France with her husband after the war. Florimond is instantly attracted to Elle, she is beautiful and open and different. He feigns indifference, but is always talking about her, curious about her life and what people know about Elle; it could become an obsession. As the fireman, standing guard at the cinema, he can watch Elle as she watches the film. It occurs to him that he never wondered how she gets home from the cinema in town at the end of the night. He travels with his brothers in their truck: “One evening we counted how many people were in the back – we’d collected everyone from the town up to the pass. Eleven kilometres. I dropped them off one by one.” Elle and her mother ride with George, so he wants to know about her relationship with George. Then, at a dance, when George wanders off, he gets to talk to Elle, but she doesn’t really seem interested until a small detail slips out in their conversation. He is unaware how deeply this piques her interest. From that moment on he is hooked. “She snuggled up to me, kissing me with moist lips. She said she’d warned me. She was no good, but I mustn’t leave her. She said, ‘you mustn’t break up with me.’” Elle moves in, they aim to get married. Elle has something in mind for Florimond, she plans revenge, for an event in the past, something that happened when Florimond was a child. Something he has no knowledge of.

I’ve read some very good psychological novels recently but they generally have one thing in common: The way they are contrived stretches plausibility. All novels are contrivances of a kind but these novels engineer a situation to ensure the twist has a real impact. The beauty of One Deadly Summer is that the twists seem perfectly natural, they are also powerful and easily a match for anything written today in cleverness and convolution, despite being written forty year ago. One Deadly Summer is an immensely powerful exploration of the psyche of a damaged individual. The truth will out but it will be far too late to prevent revenge being exacted and tragedy ensuing. Not until the very end of the novel will the full horror of what happened finally announce itself.

This novel blurs the lines between psychological thriller and noir mystery to magnificent effect. The structure is very clever, I can’t say why without giving something away, so trust me on that. The life of the village is reimagined beautifully, from the cinema (with its own fireman – celluloid had a habit of catching fire, deaths weren’t uncommon), to the town square dances, cafes and mechanic shops. Japrisot has written a compassionate novel that allows you to empathise with the characters and understand their actions even when they go off the rails. Ideal for a reading group that likes psychological mysteries.

Paul Burke 5/4

One Deadly Summer by Sébastien Japrisot
Gallic Books 9781910477502 pbk Jun 2018

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