Saturday, July 18, 2015

An intense human story of a natural disaster: Vanessa Lafaye's Summertime (Under a Dark Summer Sky)

Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime – or, in the US, Under a Dark Summer Sky – is an engaging summer read with a social bite. The isolated setting of Heron Key in Florida in 1935 is a hotbed of racial tensions, some overt and others quietly simmering and waiting to boil over.

Two generations after the end of slavery, the community’s annual Independence Day barbecue remains a segregated event, although "no one could partition the sky when those fireworks went up.”

Stress levels are already high, with over 200 unruly WWI veterans taking up residence in shacks while they repair a bridge as part of a public works project. When Hilda Kincaid, an unhappy white woman, is found badly beaten in the early hours of July 5th, Henry Roberts, a black veteran who’s finally returned home, is eyed as a suspect. The lack of motive hardly seems to matter.

The human drama takes center stage from the get-go, and following the events in the characters’ lives compels further reading. There are a lot of them to track, and while a few minor characters feel a bit fuzzy, most spring from the page with their individual personalities.

Eighteen summertimes is a long time to carry a torch for someone, but Missy Douglas, the Kincaids’ maid and nanny, has waited that long for her old friend Henry to come back from the war. She finds him profoundly changed, worn down by life, and doesn’t know if she and their town can compete with his memories of Europe – where he had a lover who didn't care about his skin color. All isn’t well in the Kincaids’ marriage, and hasn’t been from the start.  The veterans, black and white, already irked about their promised wartime bonuses being postponed, don’t mix well with the locals.

When one of the biggest tropical cyclones on record strikes the Keys soon after, the rush to survive brings out many extremes in human nature.

The writing is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe this is Lafaye’s debut. For those who like their historical fiction entrenched in a specific time and place, it will be an intense and unsettling read.

Summertime was published in the UK by Orion in paperback in May (£7.99, 368pp).  Under a Dark Summer Sky, its US title, was published in June by Sourcebooks Landmark ($14.99, 390pp).  Thanks to Orion for sending a review copy my way.


  1. Hmm. . . I don't know about this. I don't like natural disaster stories.

  2. Sounds wonderful to me. I wonder if it's in ebook yet?

    1. It is - I should have noted that. It's $11.99 Australian in ebook format.