David Macfarlane,
Summer Gone
(Random House, 1999)

It's amazing how little happens in David Macfarlane's 1999 Giller Prize-nominated novel Summer Gone. Considering the number of events the story chronicles and their import to the protagonist's life, this is, for the most part, an uneventful tale. Until we reach the final page of the second to last chapter....

Summer Gone is, at its core, the story of three summers in the life of Bay Newling -- the summer he was 12 and went away to camp in the Waubano Reaches; the summer Bay, with his wife and 6-year-old son Caz, rented a cottage near the camp, and the summer he returned to canoe in the Reaches with 12-year-old Caz. But it's the interplay between these three summers, the way they shape one another and flow together, that makes this languid story live. As Caz, our narrator, states in the novel's prologue, "I think I know something about his summers. But they run together in my head. They overlap. Because we stayed up and talked just the once. He told me about them that night."

Macfarlane allows the story to shift from summer to summer in an eddying, stream of consciousness manner, subtly mimicking the unpredictable ways that wind and swirling water will change the path of a canoe. A paragraph may start out by filling in a detail from 1964 -- the camp summer -- then slide from that summer's "cedar-hulled Chestnut" canoe to the anonymous aluminum canoe Bay rents for his fateful father and son outing more than three decades later.

Tying the three summers together are Bay's near mystical feelings about Waubano. Bay's reverence for the area originates with the lessons his camp councilor, Peter Larkin, imparted to him back in '64. And it's these things, his "summer things," that Bay feels he must pass along to Caz -- the proper way to paddle a canoe, how a harmless corn snake can disguise itself as a rattler, the way trees are shaped by the wind off the lake. But tied up with these glorious Waubano memories is the pain of mistakes made during the cottage rental summer. This too needs somehow to be explained to Caz.

Macfarlane does a wonderful job of transporting the reader into Bay Newling's head. We feel Bay's awe of the power and majesty of the Waubano Reaches. We share his need to reach out to a son he no longer raises.

And yet for much of the novel, Summer Gone struck me as incomplete. One of my criticisms of mainstream fiction is that too many authors are so concerned with style and character that they almost completely dispense with plot, creating beautifully written novels in which nothing ever happens. And, for much of Summer Gone, I felt Macfarlane's book fell into this category. There are entire paragraphs that describe nothing more than the nuances of Bay's manner of speaking. "His voice also had, above the gruff smoker's rumble, a hint of a high, mischievous tremble. This was not so much an expression of humour as it was an indication that irony was never very far beneath the surface of his restrained daily activity...." And on it goes.

But the concluding pages of this book redefine everything that has occurred in the opening 250 pages. The plot suddenly coalesces from the seemingly haphazard array of moments that have been revealed to that point. Glimpses of events, previously scattered randomly about, fall into place and the story emerges as from a morning mist. We already know that Bay is divorced, we know what triggered the breakup of his marriage, but it's only in the concluding pages that we discover just how everything fell apart.

This is quite an accomplishment, particularly from a first-time novelist, to so cleverly disguise his plot by carefully withholding bits of information from the reader. It's more in keeping with the structure of a mystery novel. But Macfarlane uses this technique not to build a clever who-done-it; instead, he's constructed more of a why-done-it. And in doing so he's answered the question why-read-it?

Because Bay's "summer things" are things you want to know. And Summer Gone is a darn good read.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 21 May 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.