When I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.
The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting.
Sebastian, the oldest, takes the train to a religious retreat that includes a spot of beekeeping. His youngest sister, Beams (short for Moombeams on account of her glasses) is an unappealing child sent to a family of keen boaters who find her presence a trial. That leaves beautiful, 16-year-old Athene who is a bit of a loner with a Heathcliffe complex.
The novel is mostly Athene’s story and Gardam does a brilliant job of making her interesting, her beauty something of a hindrance. (Although I did enjoy the pages spent with Beams who is quirky and very funny too, with her ability to size up people quickly and to find them wanting.) The story follows Athene as she runs from one place to the next, lugging a rope ladder and a crucifix with her (gifts from her mother for the people looking after her over summer) until eventually, she has a kind of crisis.
I always enjoy the subtlety of Gardam’s writing, where there are no spare words yet she creates delicate nuances of mood. Characters bounce off each other in odd ways, make wrong assumptions and carry on regardless. You know you’re in post-war era England, lots of rain and the moors nearby, with no-nonsense Yorkshire waitresses and eccentric schoolmistresses – Gardam is brilliant at peripheral characters too. Her books are short and sweet, but pack a lot in, as this one does. She’s always a five-out-of-five author for me.