Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (book review).

Eddie is dead. Andrew went to his funeral and has inherited his estate, but as alone as he feels Andrew also knows Eddie isn’t gone. Not entirely.

Six months ago, Eddie left for University and left Andrew behind. Six months where best friends and adoptive brothers were apart for the first time in years. While Andrew waited for Eddie, his brother filled a life with scholarship, new friends and an old obsession. Andrew now finds himself in Eddie’s house living with Eddie’s housemate, seeing Eddie’s friends, taking over Eddie’s research and struggling to understand the hole in his life. He knows Eddie didn’t kill himself. He knows the answer is in the six months Eddie hid from him.

As Andrew gets closer to the truth, long dead secrets come back to haunt the living. Unless he can come to terms with himself, with Eddie and the past he’s been denying, Andrew might meet the same fate as his best friend.

Are you in a good place mentally? Comfy on the couch, cup of beverage to hand? Then go ahead and start reading ‘Summer Sons.’ If you’re in a bit of a depressive zone maybe leave this one for a little while because delving into the brain space of a grieving, maladjusted, not quite suicidal protagonist isn’t likely to help you.

Andrew is not in a good place and, instead of doing things recommended by medical science, he goes off and does many things you should not do, such as taking excessive drugs and alcohol, not eating enough real food, undertaking risky behaviours and isolating himself from friends and family. Gosh, I wanted to hug Andrew, wrap him in a blanket and give him a cup of tea despite the horrendous heat of America’s South. I also wanted to take several steps away from Andrew and the web of bad vibes he was pulling everyone around him into like an emotional black hole and that’s not even taking the haunt riding him into consideration.

Andrew reminds me of Heathcliffe of ‘Wuthering Heights’ fame. Both pretty boys with a childhood trauma dividing their lives into a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ Despite the many readers wishing for ‘their’ Heathcliffe to come and sweep them romantically from their feet, they don’t really want that because Heathcliffe isn’t someone you actually want near you. Dark and brooding and mysterious with a penchant for partner abuse and social animosity. As a rich white guy, Andrew gets to avoid much of Heathcliffe’s backstory and the consequent extremes of misanthropy but that doesn’t make him someone to have in your life lightly.

These are gothic heroes and, as such, are anti-heroes that will not be swooping to see justice done for all. Andrew wants justice done for his own sake, not for any greater good. His own demons and the memory of his friend compel him forward as much as the literal ghosts that haunt him. Other people are along for the ride or obstacles in his path. Andrew is wonderfully problematic and real.

Gothic fiction is all about a return of a past that will not let us forget it no matter how we repress or deny it. ‘Summer Sons’ is that in spades. If you had to suffer through gothic fiction at school try this and see what the genre does when we can relate to the characters and the world, where the motivations are a blurred tangle of psychology and the supernatural. I could list the ways that ‘Summer Sons’ is gothic from the ancient curse to hostile weather, though here the bleak grey rain of Europe is swapped for the suffocating humid heat of Tennessee.

The closed community of privileged rich aristocracy is swapped for the privileged rich academic community which gives the novel a similar isolated community distinct from the less wealthy groups surrounding it that is reminiscent of the traditional gothic but more modern and relatable.

Most of the SF fiction labelled as ‘queer’ that I’ve read lately is a normalisation of queer relationships rather than a struggle. Becky Chamber’s ‘Psalm For The Wild Built’ and ‘The Last Emperox’ by John Scalzi for example. Lee Mandelo instead brings mental chaos and confusion as Andrew struggles to identify himself.

Andrew might like guys as well as girls or possibly more so. He doesn’t quite know and thinking about it is difficult since Eddie might have been The One but they never acknowledged what might, or might not, have been between them. The repression of memory and history mirrors Andrew’s repression of the possibility of himself and Eddie that can now never be.

‘Summer Sons’ is a book that I will revisit and I’m sure that I will find something new when I do. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ has a similar dark academia vibe. ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel has a similar underlying melancholy about how just surviving is not enough. Mandelo has brought together the elements of the southern gothic novel together in a way that highlights the creeping dread and the suffocating anxiety in a context that is contemporary and relevant. If you were confused why gothic fiction was meant to be creepy then try this.

LR Richardson

September 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 369 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $26.99 (US), $36.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-250-79028-6)

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