The Ghosts of Summer – by Frances Oliver


Jacket art: Jason Zerrillo

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt.

And it is of ‘The Ghosts of Summer’ by Frances Oliver (Ash Tree Press 2010).

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.  So I do not wish any of you interested in this review to keep returning to this page and finding nothing added.  (8 Dec 10)

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here:

All my real-time reviews of fiction by Frances Oliver:

All my real-time reviews of Ash Tree Press books:



” ‘…I always seem to notice odd things like that.’ “

Without hyperbole (I use that word as I am fed up with looking up the spelling of exagerration) this is probably the most perfect (stylistically and in essential meaning) beginning to a novel (or novella?) that is possible to exist – certainly for me, at the age of 63.  The protagonist returns to Himmelwood, the site of youthful summer camps, to listen to Bach, now past your prime of life, and you spot a co-Summer-camper from those days called ‘Tiger’ (now as old as you) who was once so exciting, as exciting as life had seemed then. But did you really see ‘Tiger’ just now?

I am captivated beyond measure, to such an extent that I dare not read further, in case the spell is broken. (10 Dec 10)


” ‘Babies cry to breathe.’ “

The spell is broken, with the narrator’s parents “refugees from Nazi-occupied Vienna“, but also broken in a constructive way, going back in time to when the narrator was six (with her parents also participating at Himmelwood) … regressing (if that’s the right word) indeed to construct the “New World” ‘genius loci’ of that childhood Summer Camp as a “Little Europe” islanded by its real geography, infused with race, folklore, characters, history, nostalgia-by-osmosis, even the fantasy of a Curdie or Princess … and the ghosts that such infusions were already stirring, I guess… (11 Dec 10)



Six-year old Sapphism amid a nose bleed and a performance of ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’ equate to an idyllic form of the narrator’s Summer self (as opposed to her Winter version that we are told is grimmer) and to an impending tension with ‘Tiger’ who we’ve only met so far in the glimpse of her older-aged version in the first chapter.  The prose is typically well-crafted for books by-lined Frances Oliver with an aura of autobiography underpinning it. Either the Narrator’s, or the Author’s? 

I do not intend further to re-narrate the plot of this novel, but merely give my personal impressions from hereon, merely seeking a noumenon or soul that is this book.  (11 Dec 10 – four hours later)


” ‘Struggling in the bushes’ “

Despite Pearl Harbour, the girls (including prehensile ‘Tiger’) – spending time gossiping, boying, girling, teasing, told not to tease, ghost-story telling – justifiably felt, at Himmelwood, insulated from the war. (11 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


” ‘I like this book,’ said Derwent. Still grinning, he tore out a page before Harley could stop him, stuffed it into his mouth…”

Himmelwood was good at dealing with gifted children such as the Narrator, but they bit off more than they could chew with Derwent, expelled as he was from elsewhere. It makes me wonder if this book itself is good at dealing with readers like me, readers that need special care, too?  Interaction in real-time with issues of actual reality transcending its fiction across the decades? (11 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


” ‘There’s a toilet in every hotel.’ “

As if, overnight, taken at my word since writing my last bit above before I went to bed, I’m this morning taken into more substantial territory, now blossoming from the regression into childhood with more focus – homing in upon scariness, childish dares, innocent smuttiness, skewed thoughts of the recent war, war crimes etc – raiding the kitchen at Himmelwood, implications of ghosts, as Tiger brazens it out, and Stephanie (Steffi), who is our Narrator (ambivalent and adolescent, now back fully into that part as the being she once was?), treats me like a special needs reader at last. She’s testing my needs, not caring for them! (12 Dec 10)


“I was eternally thrilled by the fact that our woods were the beginning of the ‘great northern forests’ our counsellors told us went on with hardly a break all the way to Canada…”

The Narrator has become my own counsellor, in effect, or I’ve let her fulfil this role, perhaps, but here we share her evocative thoughts on the languages of trees, fairies, Pan-ic glades, songs heard from unknown voices etc, at least partly within the same territory as the haunting fiction of Barbara Roden that, appropriately in hindsight, was the previous book I read to this one. Also we have here the girlish impulses to share these thoughts (or not) with others within the book, as opposed to someone like me outside it.  The Narrator fears Tiger would be contemptuous…. (12 Dec 10 – two hours later)


” ‘Steffi, sometimes I think you’re nuts.’ “

I echo that!  She even makes us readers watch things eating away at us without trying to stop them. (12 Dec 10 – another 2 hours later)


“We were city children who’d never seen milk come out of anything but bottles.”

A mixture of milk-letting and retrospective blood-letting, the wildness of children, the basic instincts even of the children’s counsellors when spied upon unawares – and a feeling that there is a monster or ghost or fairy or just plain apple-scrumper who’s mocking or exploiting their innocent fears…  Or fulfilling them!

A feeling that there is much being pent up, ready for ungeared release, later… (12 Dec 10 – another 4 hours later)


“Next to me was a silent little girl with a choppy haircut almost like my mother’s. She had a big incongruous ribbon bow sticking up from the top of her head.”

Self-imposed responsibility for Steffi holding this girl’s hand on the annual mountain climb – with shades of Picnic and kids hanging back – with Derwent, the awkward one ‘rescuing’ the girl with the large bow when she got lost, and Steffi’s previous dream of an even more awkward character merging with him – but there are apparently insidious worries beyond even these for Steffi.  Deceptively low-key German Expressionist visions….  (12 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


This book is full of the changing dynamics of friendship and loneliness in childhood, surrounded by the aftermath of inferred world events… and secret places kept secret, secret places found, secret fears, open fears, teasing, even cruelty – among young girls and the still young counsellors – and I hope readers are not made to feel voyeuristic thus to be invited to share this once private ‘fantasy’ of imagination and reality. Indeed, some readers may have dreams that Steffi is dreaming of them, hunched over the book in monstrous shapes – or monstrous to her. Steffi does dream of (or actually sees?) monstrousness, sometimes explicity but more often implicity. But how do I know? I wake up this morning with some very strange theories about these seemingly simple, if literary, memorabilia of childhood (memorabilia of Narrator or Author or other inferred Readers?)… (13 Dec 10)


“One excellent cure for depression is risk.”

Here, for Steffi, it’s climbing a boulder – alone. For some, it may be reading this book. A book full of paranoia about the pecking order in any society of personalities, young or old, here young and younger, in awakening sexuality and feeling-one’s-feet and the need to ‘work’ that pecking order. Mixed with fantasies and truths, and the blurred area between. This book vaguely yet positively reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s memorable SF novel “Never Let Me Go” – and of the brief story “In The Camp” by Patrick Gale. (I can provide free copies of this story in its original printed form – just write to me.) (13 Dec 10 – two hours later)


“Something dramatic had happened, something big, and I was to remain excluded.”

But not as personally dramatic as that from which ‘I’ was not excluded. Derwent went under the broomstick… (13 Dec 10 – another 4 hours later)


Lights flashing at enemy planes: the ‘foreign European’ inmates are thus ludicrously accused – followed by a glimpse from the standpoint of future’s unfairness. It makes me think the narrative point of view is unsteady: and sometimes I feel that we readers are like the counsellors as Steffi asks ‘narrative’ questions for reassurance, questions radiating out from the book into a new, different future which contains someone analysing her fantasy’s dark corners (like those lights passively probing rather than actively signalling?) rather than asking these questions rhetorically to less eccentric, if less understanding, readers than me. (13 Dec 10 – another hour later)


“I’d always wondered how they fitted so exactly, when the mouths you saw on people around you were so many different sizes and shapes.”

Misunderstandings, in fact part of a possibly deliberate misconstrued retrocausal autobiography – in tune with the arguable hoax of a biography in this author’s ‘The Peacock’s Eye’ – as we learn to live with Steffi, and, indeed, sometimes, we suspect she speaks with less than pure truth or at least economical with it?  Her heterosexually romantic stirrings are both poignant and amusing, as she often genuinely misunderstands then but not now.  Poignant, too, because her Secret Place has been violated by others. Her fantasies violated, too? By we readers? I suspect both Author and Narrator are less than frank with each other, both knowingly and unknowingly by turns.  Meanwhile, there is an impendingness (if that’s the right word or a word at all) that Steffi’s fantasies (particularly the darker ones) are not necessarily fantasies but some reality of horror.  An impendingness that all parties (reader, author, narrator, other characters) suspect but can never know? (13 Dec 10 – another hour later)


“Derwent, of course, couldn’t be evil. He was a child. But his deeds were evil…”

Very telling now to read this chapter, after, in the last hour, watching a programme on TV about German Art in the 20th century.  We have modern art as a destructtion of the same modern art – Derwent as an Otto Dix creation. We have perhaps Nazism in microcosm and almost a reason why it existed. Meanwhile, Steffi’s story continues ‘in the camp’, but with undercurrents that make me shudder. Symbols and fears that now transcend her idyllic Pan-ic glades. (13 Dec 10 – another 4 hours later)


“August that year was very hot and very dry.”

Morning, and it seems strange to be reading this in the depth of a very cold winter, as I am.  I wonder whether pushing back against things accentuate the power of things pushing back at you, … the ‘real’ downbeat children haunting the Cholera cemetery the campers pass on cantering horses. Or Steffi learning to swim, an ostensibly positive activity amid the endless summers of my own childhood…? (I never learnt in the end, but I did try). (14 Dec 10)


“…you always seemed to get gooseflesh in the quarry, no matter how hot the air…”

… being a great sense of reading this book.  Furthermore, I think, pompously, that I understand the motivations of some of the other characters better than Steffi does. But what about the first chapter’s older narrator (now subsumed by regression?) or the author herself? I think I know more than they do, too. Readers are where the buck stops in fiction, I’ve always thought. (14 Dec 10 – another three hours later)


” ‘You know what it means when you shiver in the sun,’ said Elaine beside me. ‘My Gran said it means somebody’s walking over your grave.’ “

And now, I realise, perhaps for the first time, that that saying I’ve known all my life is the essence of retrocausality and fits so exquisitely with the whole of this book: as we reach that Summer Camp’s foreseeing of its own depressing ending, mixed with feminine ‘curses’ and even a glimpse of the Wendigo… This is a wonderfully exciting and evocative chapter of events, involving many of the characters, including – as well as Steffi – Tiger, Derwent… But I’m keeping my mouth shut about it. I feel I will be cursed, too, if I allow a spoiler to escape here. This being the only possible spoiler in literature, perhaps, potentially to affect a fiction ‘real-timer’ retrocausally … and severely. (14 Dec 10 – another 2 hours later)


“The room, the hall, seemed strangely ghostly, as if camp was already over…”

The onward power of this book needs to be savoured, not allowed to slide over the reading-eye.  Following a dream (reminding me of a scene in Elizabeth Bowen fiction) of Steffi’s bed of dreaming between the tombs of the Cholera Cemetery (not a spoiler but a trenchant embroidery artfully incrementalising the undercurrents of adolescent angst), we reach perhaps a different spoiler (‘spoil’ in near miswritten, misspelt anagram echoing a different misspelling all those days ago at the top of this page), a different wild escape for a diffferent reason… (14 Dec 10 – another hour later)


“…who could show me how to get my kite off the ground.”

The way the plot’s synchronised shards (or stones) of random truth and fiction do now with the plot’s own retrocausal kite, as we all recapitulate the “struggling in the bushes” of adolescence.  And Steffi’s in particular.  The holding fast to truth simultaneously with blanking it out. A symbol for all our lives? (14 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)


“…the ‘day residue’…”

Whether from amid reflex dreams, deliberate fantasies, ghosts, real horrors or permutations of these with and without the benefit of true / false memory – Steffi now returns to narrating herself as the first Narrator we encountered all those chapters ago. I think this novel will stay with me forever. A worthy addition to the Frances Oliver canon. Although I think Steffi was quite beyond Ms Oliver’s strictures.  Only unimaginative people need counsellors. (14 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)



The Case of Dr Tisch

“…something I dreamed last night, but I’m not sure. I remember a tool shed we used to have in the back yard…”

A story – separate to ‘The Ghosts of Summer’ – as a farcical fill-in about a Freudian analyst from Vienna practising in New York, he snobbish, his wife nagging.  A fear of purposely dropping opera-glasses on those beneath one’s balcony … and a posh patient created from the voodoo of Dr Tisch’s wish-fulfilment – or his wife’s? Perhaps, the lesson to be drawn is that Steffi’s quarry is not at all in the same class of memory as the memory of one of Dr Tisch’s female patients about a tool shed or even the fire she persuaded herself she set alight accidentally in the Freudian analyst’s office so that, arguably, she could be be Freudianly analysed about it in later life….? Or am I being facetious? Just another day’s residue to join the Freudian sump of this book. As long as you don’t allow it to ‘spoil’ for you the marvellous “Ghosts of Summer” retrocausally!

“…and he was doing nothing – nothing. Just listening to the last Beethoven quartet.” (14 Dec 10 – another hour later)



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3 responses to “The Ghosts of Summer – by Frances Oliver

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