Monday, 5 June 2017

Emma's Review: The Summer Visitors by Fiona O'Brien

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Summer has arrived in Ballyanna, and so too has a mysterious visitor ...

American documentary maker Daniel O'Connell is renting the beautiful Cable Lodge for the summer. He's hoping that three months researching an old cable station in a remote village on the south-west coast of Ireland will help him and his traumatised son finally move on from the accident that killed his wife.

Meanwhile local hotel owner's daughter Annie Sullivan has communication problems of her own to deal with. Home on sabbatical from her life in London, she's keeping a secret from her dysfunctional family and trying to save them and the hotel from their latest drama.

As summer draws to a close in Ballyanna, both Dan and Annie are forced to confront the pasts they've been escaping. But will they be able to grasp the future that lies ahead?

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It's been so long since I have read anything by Irish writer Fiona O'Brien. When I actually checked when her last book was published it was way back in 2011. Six years is a long gap between books and readers would be hopeful the wait was worth it. Fiona is an author people may not have heard much mention of before and that is a shame. I feel she is vastly underrated and had definitely been up there with the other women's fictions writers I adore.

This new book The Summer Visitors has a lovely bright inviting cover which really conjures up images of summer and relaxing with nothing better to do than read a good book. Is this the book that fits into that image? Honestly for the majority of the book I found it quite slow going. I had become familiar with the characters, their various problems and the gorgeous setting but to my mind nothing was actually happening and the summer days in the village of Ballyanna on the south west coast of Ireland seemed to be slipping by fairly uneventfully. It's not until perhaps the last quarter of the book that my opinion changed but I still question whether it was too little too late. Bam you were hit with that moment of shock and revelation that makes you kick yourself that you had never spotted it coming. Upon reflection the hints were all there for the reader to pick on but the fact I didn't see it coming made me realise the book was a lot better in parts than I had been giving it credit for up until that point.

The Summer Visitors is a story of love, second chances and finding the courage and strength to move on. The themes throughout the book are handled with sensitivity and care and there is a really summery feeling throughout despite the fact many of the characters are deeply troubled. The setting of Ballyanna although fictional was wonderful. It wasn't too big that people would become lost there yet the village itself and the surrounding landscape and beaches provided a respite and a place to hide for those who needed it. The old cable station, once the scene of such vital work linking America with Ireland, will play a crucial role once again and the theme of communication will also feature heavily. 'Something is disturbing the reliable patters of village life. Something or someone, seems determined to make themselves heard, whatever the cost, however precarious the means. And for one last time, the old cable station, for so long silent, will facilitate a vitally important communication between two very different worlds'.

Annie is 36 and just about to celebrate her fourth anniversary with Ed. She has a beautiful house in Notting Hill and a brilliant job in an advertising agency she helped set up. Babies are next up on her long term agenda but Ed won't entertain it. We soon find out why and Annie finds her life in disarray and with time on her hands as a sabbatical from work is suggested. So Annie turns to the one place where she knows she will find solace and comfort, a place with many memories some good some bad and that place is home in Ballyanna. Annie arrives back to the village at a time when changes are afoot. The family need her to help run the hotel. Her father is 'not well' and her mother is under immense pressure. On one hand I felt Annie was great to step into the breech and keep the hotel going when times were strained as each family member had something they were battling with. She was the strength when others were failing and she was to be admired for this. But on the other hand I had felt she was going to be a major character with a lot of focus on her own story but as the book progressed I felt her own issues were pushed aside and could have been explored far more. I understand she became the glue that held her family together and that she helps Dan but I would have loved more focus on Annie herself, a deeper view instead of the peripheral one I felt we got.

Daniel O'Connell is holidaying in Ballyanna with his twin sons Sean and Pat. He is researching the old cable station and its history but also the break is a chance for his little family to get to know one another again, to find some solace and maybe begin to heal as Daniel has been made a widower through a tragic accident. 'Life goes on. Even if you feel like you're walking through it on autopilot. Someone has stolen his, taken everything he knew, loved and lived by and turned it on its head'. I thought Fiona dealt so well with the grief the family were experiencing and there were numerous sentences I felt the need to stop for a minute and reread and absorb them. It touched a cord with me and I found myself nodding along in agreement with how they family were feeling and coping on a day to day basis. Said accident has left Sean in a world of his own. A world of silence as he has not uttered a word since the event that left him motherless. This is ironic considering the field of communication Dan has come to study. We do have plenty of chapters from Sean's viewpoint which I felt were needed in the book. The relationship he develops with Annie's niece Gracie was brilliant to observe and although he never uttered one word, the connection between the two was something special to witness. Gracie did more than enough talking for the pair of them and I think she needed that time away from what was going on in her own personal life. Gracie although one of the youngest characters was perhaps my favourite.

Breda the matriarch of the family is under immense pressure, keeping up appearances. On one side the hotel has to be kept going and she is thankful Annie has come home to help. On the other keeping her husband out of trouble as his tenancy for a tipple or too becomes ever more known is now high on her list of priorities. Also the fact her daughter Dee is experiencing troubles of her own as husband John has brought shame on the family is not helping matters. The reader can sense Breda is just pure tired and worn out, that she can't keep battling any more. Decisions need to be made. Should the hotel be sold? How can she help Dee who is going down a bumpy road? How can she protect Gracie from being exposed to a reality no one should have to experience? Onto the scene comes priest Father. Barry McLaughlin -Breda's first love. He is back home after years away in Africa working as a missionary. Old memories stir up for Breda and at a time when she is vulnerable and all around her seems to be falling apart will Barry offer the comfort and answers she so desperately needs? I did think Barry seemed very surplus to requirements. He makes sporadic appearances and I couldn't see how he would fit in with things but once again I was proven surprised.

Fiona O'Brien has written a good story with a lot going on underneath the surface that doesn't became apparent and relevant until much later in this book. There is a complex cast of characters and as relationships and bonds develop over the summer in the small village and secrets are exposed one wonders will there be any happiness or resolution for the people you have invested time reading about? How are all the people connected? Will the village work it's magic? Why did the author use communication as a driving force for the story?  The themes do shine through towards the end and things began to make more sense. It's the big reveal that made me glad I persisted with this book as it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Is The Summer Visitors worth a read? Yes it is but it's not my favourite by this author and not one I think will stick in my mind when I come to pick my books of the year. It is one to read on a sun lounger abroad and enjoy it for what it is at the time of reading.

Many thanks to Hachette Books Ireland for my copy via NetGalley of The Summer Visitors to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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