It’s frightening, what happened to the author late one night travelling on a dark road after an exhausting studio session, forced to suddenly stop because of two shadowy figures ahead. (You can read about the event in an article on her UK publisher’s site, here.)
Something of this soul-stirring fear remains in the opening pages of Miranda Sherry’s novel. Readers peek into a scene which appears ordinary, mugs being washed in a sink, then a shape viewed outside the window.
What happens next, readers do not observe directly (further into the story more information is provided indirectly) but it lurks beneath the remainder of the novel: violent, devastating, and disorienting.
Sally is thirty-eight-years old when she is killed; then, she begins to narrate Black Dog Summer.
A novel can be narrated by death (like Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief), a dog (as in Edward Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), or a drug (consider James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods).
So, the decision to have a ghost narrate a story isn’t fresh.
“Ghosts make great narrators. They tend to see everything,” explains Javier Marías, whose mystically-populated collection of stories While the Women Are Sleeping was published in Spain in 1990. (The interview is here, marking the English publication of the work in 2010.)
This is true of Black Dog Summer; Sally sees everything about her sister Adele’s life with husband Liam, daughter Bryony and son Tyler, and Sally’s surviving daughter, Gigi, who comes to live with them.
What could be better than an all-knowing ghost narrator who can observe and intuit what the average narrator might miss, who can seamlessly inhabit the experience of other characters?
But it is challenging to consistently maintain a credible narrative voice like Sally’s, which is rooted in experience (if 38 years of living experience wasn’t enough, she has experience being dead too) while aiming to naturally depict the inexperience and naïvete of younger characters being observed.
Much of Sally’s experience and perspective does present believably, while still affording the opportunity for the other characters to develop and present independently, but there are some awkward instances.
Some technical details could be adjusted just slightly so that readers would not ever question the credibility of the narrative voice. [Note: Please skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to get technical.]
For example, eleven-year-old Bryony’s announcement after Gigi’s arrival, that there is spaghetti Bolognese for dinner, feels off to her. The announcement is shared with readers in direct dialogue, and then, indirectly, readers learn that the girl immediately wishes that she hadn’t spoken. This is shared as though Sally is inside Bryony’s head, along with Bryony’s thought that it “seems like such a stupid thing to say to someone whom you haven’t seen in nine years and whose mom was just murdered”. That does seem like something an eleven-year-old might think, but the ‘whom’ inserts an element of polish which is out-of-place. From a King’s English perspective, the language is spot-on. But for readers to consistently inhabit Sally’s voice AND still believe wholly in Bryony’s character, an editor could suggest a change in what is presented directly and indirectly or suggest usage which might not be correct language-wise but which would fit an eleven-year-old’s voice.
The stories of the individual characters, however, are powerful enough that such details can be overlooked. Furthermore, the overt discussion of Sally’s relationships with individual characters’ stories offers a degree of stability. (Some of the novel’s most intriguing elements are rooted in the stories outside Sally’s immediate family: neighbour Lesedi’s relationship to “the other side” as a sangoma also offers a fascinating parallel to Sally’s experience.)
Sally is a highly imagistic narrator. Fright comes in chunks that need swallowing. and unasked questions fly up a child’s throat and smash into the back of her teeth. Fingers are hard and yellow like uncooked pasta, and eyes are dead-looking.
Metaphors circle around the themes of loss and dislocation and the South African setting is described vividly. (Pictures of the treescape are available on the author’s site, here.) From the “white frill of surf” on the Indian Ocean to “fossilized coats of red dust”, from “the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic” to a “memorable tipuana-tree-climbing occasion”, from “bright red baubles of the flame trees” to the “tightly tucked-in green blankets” of the school grounds: the scenic detail permeates the story perfectly.
When Javier Marías spoke of ghost narrators, he continued by saying that “it’s a terrible thing to have total knowledge. Ignorance can be a gift.”
This is true, too, in Black Dog Summer, a highly emotive story focusing on regrets and restoration. Terrible things do happen and both readers and characters will learn things they might rather not know. But Miranda Sherry’s novel leads readers out of the shadows.