Com­ing-of-age novel dis­turb­ing, sat­is­fy­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

IN this en­gag­ing com­ing-of-age novel by On­tario author and jour­nal­ist El­iz­a­beth Kelly, you have a sense of be­ing held by an archer who stretches the bow more and more tightly.

The story builds and grows with in­ten­sity and an­tic­i­pa­tion, like a lit­er­ary de­tec­tive novel.

When the ar­row is fi­nally re­leased, near the end, you know that the dread, which has been build­ing since Page 1, is mer­ited. And this archer is one heck of a shot. The Last Sum­mer of the Camperdowns is nar­rated by Rid­dle James Cam­per­down, an Amer­i­can girl who is named af­ter her fa­ther’s hero, union leader James (“Jimmy”) Rid­dle Hoffa.

It is not en­tirely lost on the reader that Hoffa’s mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance and pre­sumed mur­der (in­deed, au­thor­i­ties are still look­ing for his body) may not bode well for his name­sake.

Rid­dle is a so­phis­ti­cated sto­ry­teller who looks back from the dis­tance of two decades on the events of the sum­mer of 1972 when she was 13.

This beau­ti­fully writ­ten book is billed as be­ing broad and comic. It’s not re­ally funny or rol­lick­ing, al­though there are plenty of wry and witty de­scrip­tions.

Kelly’s 2009 de­but novel, Apol­o­gize, Apol­o­gize! im­pressed read­ers with its ram­bling de­scrip­tion of an Ir­ish-Amer­i­can fam­ily dy­nasty, nar­rated by the son Col­lie who was named af­ter a breed of dog.

From Camperdowns’ open­ing pages, the reader savours Kelly’s abil­ity to evoke a char­ac­ter.

At the shabby old fam­ily sum­mer house on the sea­side at Cape Cod, Mass., Rid­dle is an only child who has grown up “in the ex­clu­sive com­pany” of her par­ents. “I was at­tuned,” she says, “to all the things that tend to go un­said be­tween adults.”

Rid­dle’s fa­ther is God­frey “Camp” Cam­per­down, a Sec­ond World War hero, song­writer and union ide­al­ist who comes from old money but has none left.

He is run­ning for Congress. “Pol­i­tics,” ob­serves Rid­dle, “was an in­her­ited af­flic­tion in our fam­ily, passed on like a weak chin from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.”

Her mother, Greer, is a for­mer Hol­ly­wood star with ra­zor-sharp wit and lit­tle pa­tience for house­work or chil­dren. She is a horse­woman.

“If Cole Porter’s mu­sic could be taught to ride a horse,” Rid­dle notes, it would cap­ture some of what my mother evinced in the sad­dle.”

Rid­dle de­scribes her par­ents as hav­ing an “al­chem­i­cal mix.” “To spend time with Greer and Camp,” she sug­gests, “was to ex­pe­ri­ence first-hand the ef­fects of a ping-pong marathon be­tween two war­ring coun­tries.”

Early in the sum­mer of 1972, while Rid­dle is at the neigh­bour’s horse barn search­ing for a lost puppy, she hears and sees some­thing she in­tu­itively knows is hor­rific. But she is par­a­lyzed by fear. What she has seen be­comes un­speak­able.

When the son of her fa­ther’s neme­sis dis­ap­pears, Rid­dle re­al­izes she may know what hap­pened. But she doesn’t say any­thing.

Rid­dle’s sum­mer is a tor­tured sea­son. The se­crets of the past and present un­ravel while friend­ships and ro­mances build and col­lapse.

If all you want in a novel is a rol­lick­ing good time, don’t read this strangely dis­turb­ing and sat­is­fy­ing novel. But if you want a feast of words, a com­plex plot and mem­o­rably drawn char­ac­ters, The Last Sum­mer of the Camperdowns is for you.

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