Set in a small Texan prairie town that is in the midst of a hot, dry and unforgiving summer, this tale takes a close look at society’s willingness to forgive a monster. After serving ten years for a violent assault against a woman in the town, Jasper is released from prison and, having nowhere else to go, returns to his childhood home to live with his sister, Lizzie.
A single mum due to the repercussions of Jasper’s horrific act, Lizzie takes him in, acknowledging her conflict even as she does so: ‘But Lizzie stands paralyzed, listening to her brother’s laugh that is not her brothers, spoon held before her like some useless shield against whatever unknowns may come to pass. The reverend’s words haunt her. Half a day with Jasper and her inner response is still the same: I reckon I don’t know at all.’
To her, Jasper is both the big brother who looked after and loved her, and the psychopath who cannot be fully trusted. Familial ties win out and she lets him into her home, trusting that he will not harm her or her two daughters – the teenage Katie who doesn’t trust her uncle and the younger tween Joanne, who is innocently trustful and intrigued by this uncle she does not know.
The town is not so understanding of Lizzie’s decision to help her brother, nor are they willing to move past Jasper’s history, unfortunately Jasper’s insistence that he is not looking for trouble falls on deaf ears.
Cleverly set out with no chapter breaks to keep the tension building, Vanessa Ronan’s prose is both vividly descriptive and dramatic; her short, sharp sentences paint a family and town on edge. “The shop smells mildly of cat piss and mothballs, a smell that slaps the nostrils and jerks back the head…” From the first page, you can feel major trouble looming.
The characters are in a way stereotypical: the reverend who offers no practical help, the un-supportive parole officer and his blowsy receptionist, the rich oil man and his handsome son, the gun-toting vigilante brigade; however in this story, they work. Without them you could not consider each perspective of forgiveness – the Christian act of turning the other cheek, the town’s very understandable fear of him in their midst once again, the wronged family’s desire for vengeance, the pull of kin and shared childhood. Set against these viewpoints is a perpetrator who is aware of his actions but takes no responsibility for them; if Jasper is unremorseful and does not seek forgiveness, is he entitled to it?
Edgy, shocking and intense, this is no light-hearted read but a compelling one nonetheless. Very well written and, as disturbing as some parts of it are, I couldn’t put it down.
Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen
The Last Days of Summer
by Vanessa Ronan
Published by Penguin Random House