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Book Review: What Dies in Summer by Tom Wright

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Jim is a teenager in Texas, living with his grandmother. One morning in February, his cousin Lee Ann, whom he calls L.A., shows up on the porch shivering and refusing to speak. She moves in with Jim and Gram and starts seeing a therapist. JIm, being fond of L.A., is fine with this. He and L.A. are friends, and he has his own peculiarities, like having a touch of the Sight.

The school year comes to an end without incident, but the same cannot be said for summer, which is marked by danger and death. Jim and L.A. find the body of a teenaged girl one day, and Jim realizes he has been seeing this girl in his dreams for days. Before long her death is linked to the murders of two other girls in the area.

All manner of characters surround Jim and L.A., including a vagrant man with a voice of gold; a homeless woman who seems to know everything about Jim without being told; Jim’s best friend Dee, who loves to paint and whose father likes to hang out with Jim rather than his own son; and Jim’s uncle Cam, L.A.’s father, a part-time musician.

Jim is keen to protect Gram and L.A. and also to explore his relationship with his girlfriend Diana, daughter of a local policeman. When Jim goes on vacation with Diana’s family, the action comes to a head with a full-head of steam and an ending I didn’t see coming.

I loved What Dies in Summer. The writing is rich and evocative, even though the time is only alluded to (early-to-mid 1970’s) and the place rarely mentioned. For the first half of the book, I typically only read one chapter at a time; they were each filling little stories within themselves. I also was often filled with foreboding that made me apprehensive about what was next.

It has plenty of sweet and tender moments as well. Jim befriends one of Gram’s friends as she dies of cancer, and his relationship with Diana is pure teenaged love from a boy’s point of view. Jim is a likable and believable narrator, and his story unfolds at first with languor and then with urgency.

What DIes in Summer is a fine Southern Gothic debut. I’m sure we’ll hear more from the author, psychologist Tom Wright. I will look forward to it.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.