Today’s book is that most elusive of creatures – literary fiction that is eminently readable and skilfully demonstrates how reality and our perceptions of reality can merge in ways that result in unexpected personal consequences. The Summer That Melted Everything is Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel and an impressive little number it is. We received a copy from Scribe Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
While this is by no means a book that’s going to leave you strolling away whistling once you put it down, there is something to be said for storytelling that explores the baser aspects of human existence without casting any particular person as “the monster”. McDaniel has produced an extremely well-crafted novel for a first-timer, and if you are prepared to delve into a world in which nobody’s flaws are glossed over, then I would highly recommend you take a look at The Summer That Melted Everything.
The book is narrated by Fielding Bliss and alternates between a particularly memorable summer of 1984 and Fielding’s moribund situation in the present. The story begins with a style that borders on magical realism, with larger-than-life, quirky characters and the unexpected arrival of a young boy whose other-wordliness seems to seep from his very pores. As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, although the “truth” of the matter does turn out to be at least as strange as the fiction. Sal, as a thirteen year old boy, isn’t a particularly authentic character, being too wise for words in some instances, yet remains incredibly endearing and vulnerable in spite of his apparently redoubtable exterior. Fielding is a much more genuine portrayal of a young boy, although his narration as an elderly man is quite harrowing at times. The story is rounded out with Grand, Fielding’s older brother and golden boy of the town, his agoraphobic mother, criminal lawyer father, diminutive, angry and zealous neighbour (named, interestingly enough, Elohim), and a collection of small-town folk whose secrets and personal shames are variously brought to light throughout the story.
By the end of the novel, most of the “magic” of the story has fallen away and the reader is left with the stark and disturbing aftermath of unimaginable actions driven by a town’s collective imaginings. As I mentioned earlier, the book won’t leave you with an uplifted spirit and the desire to prance along the street, but neither does it employ gratuitous shock tactics simply to provide an action-packed finale. While the content toward the end is reasonably challenging, it certainly leaves the reader with plenty to ponder over and this pondering is aided by the treacle-slow pace of the writing, which brilliantly reflects the apparent stopping of time that occurs during a prolonged heatwave.
The only problem I had with the book is that although it is set mostly in 1984, the characters and dialogue had me more in mind of the 1950s. This may have been deliberate on the part of the author, and to be honest, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the story, but it was an interesting side-effect nonetheless.
We highly recommend The Summer That Melted Everything to readers who are looking for realistic literary fiction with a masterfully constructed fantastical streak.
Until next time,