It is obvious why I picked up Siri Hustvedt’s ‘The Summer Without Men’ (2011). It is summer here. It seemed an appropriate summer book.
I’d only read Siri Hustvedt’s non-fiction before this. The essays in ‘Living, Thinking, Looking’ (2012) are extraordinary so I knew I was in for a satisfying read at an intellectual level. I didn’t realise it would be so emotionally devastating.
‘The Summer Without Men’ spoke to me – and not because of the rather naff device of directly addressing the reader as ‘Dear Reader’ and ‘Gentle Person’ at odd moments.
The narrator Mia, a poet and academic and spurned wife put on a ‘pause’ after thirty years of marriage, goes spectacularly and certifiably mad at the beginning of the novel. But then she turns the spotlight away from herself to deftly include all the ages of women – the maiden, the mother, the crone.
The maidens are Mia’s coven of young girls in her summer poetry class; the mothers are herself and her neighbour; and the crones are her own mother and her compatriots at the nursing home, The Swans who have kept their wits about them on the long road to death.
She (Siri/Mia) threads their stories together – creating a tapestry not unlike Abigail’s Secret Amusements, the stitched creations this Swan has made since the 1940s which appear pretty and parochial on the surface while concealing hidden depths and shockingness.
We, the dear readers, are taken by the hand and led through conversations on memory and art and relationships and love and peer group pressure and bullying (in fact, there’s virtually a manual on how to deal with the hurts of the latter two).
I wanted to start these same conversations with everyone around me.
In the end I was not entirely convinced by Mia’s decision. Though, this was only the end of the book and I am thoroughly convinced by the reality of the character, so who knows what will happen next in her life.
At one stage, the three year old next door is playing with her dollhouse and is overheard saying, ‘Too bad I’m real so I can’t go in my little house and live!’ (p. 20). I had to close the book. Too bad I’m real.
PS Who was the mystery email bully anyway?
Image: 16th century Flemish tapestry of a great mother, the lioness.