Sunday, 29 January 2017

'Lying About Last Summer' by Sue Wallman

*This review will contain spoilers!*
'When somebody dies, you view photos of them in a different way. You want a reminder of how they looked, but you also search for hidden truths in their eyes, answers to questions you can no longer ask them.'

'My sister doesn't use the word disappear but that's what she means.'
The tension is immediate, and knowing that this scene is set in the last summer that's referenced in the title just increases the adrenaline that instantly floods your veins.
It's impossible to put this book down once you've read the first page, and I eagerly devoured it in one sitting.

Last summer, Skye's sister Luisa was murdered. She'd been dealing drugs for her boyfriend, angering the local dealer in the process. A heated argument turned deadly when he shoved her and she hit her head on the side of the pool, falling unconscious and drowning.
The worst part? Skye was hiding in the pool house, frozen in fear, unable to save her sister.
It's now been a year since Luisa's death. Skye's parents send her to Morley Hill, a summer camp with a program to help grieving teenagers. She's surrounded by people her own age who have also experienced death, and rather than being inspirational the getaway just causes more problems for Skye.
For one thing, it's located less than an hour away from the house where Luisa died. Just smelling the country air brings back memories of her old life in the country, before her family left Yew Tree House and moved to London. The camp even sources the ingredients locally, meaning she has to use sauces supplied by the farm shop where she used to work - the place where Luisa's ex-boyfriend Toby is still employed. Then there's the pool where all of the campers can go to relax; water that she used to love swimming in, but can now hardly bring herself to look at...
That's all before someone starts texting her, pretending to be Luisa. She knows her sister isn't alive - she saw her body floating face down in the water - but a part of her still hopes. But when the messages start to get sinister Skye needs to work out who's behind them, before her own life is put in danger.

I read 'Lying About Last Summer' in preparation for the #SundayYA Twitter chat about Zoella's book club, but I'd been intending to read it since publication. Based off of the synopsis - the eerie messages arriving from her dead sister's account - I'd presumed it was going to be a fast-paced thriller, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was much more than that.
Primarily, 'Lying About Last Summer' is about loss. Of course there's the literal loss of Luisa and the subsequent loss of the family home when they relocate, but there's also the loss of innocence, self-confidence and identity. Skye doesn't know who she is without swimming, but she can't bring herself to get back in a pool because the scent of chlorine sends her reeling. Brandon, one of the other campers, has had to deal with the death of his brother and his parent's divorce, leaving him the only mixed-race member of his family when his mother gets remarried to a white man. He feels displaced in his own home, no longer sure of where he fits into the dynamic.
Blame also plays a big part in things. Skye blames herself for not being able to save Luisa, while Fay - Skye's roommate - blames herself for her father's death, because they were arguing and it caused him to crash his car.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. You might be thinking that a book about death would be depressing, but it's very uplifting and inspirational. Rather than wallowing in grief, we see each of the characters coming to terms with their situations in their own time, learning to live for those they've lost. This is why they're at an adventure camp: they can focus on the activities on offer to them, taking their mind off of their grief and showing them that life is still worth living.
In fact, the menacing messages are the least interesting thing about this story. Yes, they drive the plot and ratchet up the tension when Skye has no idea who she can trust, but even without them I would have loved this. I always adore non-chronological narratives, so jumping backwards and forwards to Yew Tree House - getting to know Luisa before she met Nico making her death even more emotional - kept me turning the pages. More than that, though, all of the characters are so strong. I wanted to know more about each of them: who they'd lost, how they were coping, what they were going to go on to do with their lives. I didn't figure out who was sending the messages, but the who wasn't the big question. I was much more interested in why someone would be pretending to be Skye's sister, and I found the answer to that mystery very satisfying.
Skye in particular was very realistic. No one knows how they'll act in a threatening situation until they're in it, and the way that she berates herself constantly for not being braver and trying to help her sister is very authentic. She struggles with the guilt and it makes her feel like a stranger to herself: she can't equate herself with the girl who hid and did nothing. It makes me wonder what I'd do in that situation. Could I put myself at risk to save someone I loved, or am I not that brave?
Joe, one of the other campers, is extremely manipulative towards Fay, and convinces her that she needs to commit suicide to restore the balance she upset by causing her father's death. The foreshadowing is not very subtle, so it's obvious that Joe's going to turn out to be the big bad - especially when you consider the fact that his previous girlfriend killed herself! But it's an interesting argument: if you cause someone's death, do you deserve to die? I think it's much harder - and braver - to continue living with that knowledge, but the idea of a huge unbalanced scale is a fascinating one. Skye ends up saving Fay, which restores her balance in itself: she failed to save her sister, but learns that she can act under pressure and save people - she's just learning it a little bit too late.
The only reason this book didn't get five stars is because it feels a little rushed. All of the characters get established and the ball gets rolling on the plot, and then Skye comments on the fact that there's only two days of camp left. I wanted more. It's only a small book, but I think it could have easily been one hundred pages longer and still held my attention. I don't often complain about books being too short, so that's a compliment in itself!

If you've ever lost someone close to you, you'll relate to this book. It's an honest portrayal of the grieving process: needing to come to terms with loss and being moving on with your life.
Of course, this book poses a lot of philosophical questions. Skye believes she's getting messages from her dead sister, which opens up discussions of the afterlife and signs from the other side, while Joe's conviction that Fay has a debt to pay makes you wonder if the theory of every action having an equal and opposite reaction is true. It's one that's going to stay with me for a long time.
I read this book really quickly, within a couple of hours, and I already want to pick it up again and look for the things that I missed in the background. For a debut novel, it's astounding.
Sue's second novel, 'See How They Lie', is being released in March, and I'm definitely going to be reading it as soon as it comes out.

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