#notthebooker review no.3: The summer that melted everything by Tiffany McDaniel

Note: I’m trying to read and review the shortlist for the Guardian’s #notthebooker prize — the last two reviews can be found here and here.

The summer that melted everything, set in 1980s Ohio, is a compelling, often brilliant, novel, by far the best of the Not the Booker shortlist so far. Although not as good, it brings to mind the work of Marilynne Robinson in its use of small town life to discuss big societal ills.

The novel opens with an offer, an offer made in the local newspaper by state prosecutor Autopsy Bliss. He’s inviting the devil to town. He wants Lucifer to explain himself and the world. The surprise is that the devil then seemingly appears, in the shape of 13 year old African American child Sal.

It’s a striking opening and the novel unfolds lucidly from the initial concept. Sal’s life become entwined with the lives of the Bliss family and the rhythms of the town, At times it seems as if he might be responsible for several misfortunes but it’s never entirely clear.

This plot is complex but it serves well as a way for McDaniel to discuss sexuality, race and power. Sal, perhaps the devil, perhaps not, is the outsider, hated for everything he might be or what he could be.

The real brilliance of the novel is in its language. McDaniel has a talent for structuring a sentence, weaving long and complicated thoughts together in a slightly offbeat way. Her use of imagery as well is striking, slightly askew. I was particularly impressed with a passage where the ‘devil’ Sal describes the memory of falling from heaven as tumbling down seven million steps. On each step a pair of hands reached out to hold the descending Lucifer briefly, then lets go to fall further.

In his Guardian review Sam Jordison called the novel ‘overwrought’ but at no point did I find this to be the case. Instead I thought it was deliberately projected at a fever-pitch, which added to the dreamy unreality of the world created.

Outside of Autopsy and Sal there are large roles for Autopsy’s sons Fielding (the narrator), Grand and next door neighbour Elohim. Each of these characters is well sketched, with rounded motivations. In particular, Grand and Elohim, fighting against what they see as nature perverted, are compelling. True, at times the characters shade into pretension. Grand, for example (a 17 year old Midwestern jock), speaks from time to time in Russian — which seems unlikely. But for the most part the novel gets away with such minor eccentricities.

As it builds to a conclusion the novel ratchets up the tension with a controlled excellence, that leaves the reader hanging on as the characters fall away. I found as each level of the book is revealed you understand more and more what it means to say. Certainly as a debut it delivers a great deal and I’m excited to see what the author delivers next.