This book by journalist and Sydneysider Vanessa McCausland came as a bit of a surprise. Its cover is beautiful but implied more whimsy than is on offer in the book. Which is a good thing for me as I struggle with ‘lightness’. It’s a hard book to describe in many ways… there are elements of romance, some meaning-of-life navel gazing and certainly some suspense.
The Lost Summers of Driftwood
by Vanessa McCausland
Published by HarperCollins - AU
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Romantic Suspense
Phoebe's life has fallen apart and there's only one place left to go. Alone and adrift after a failed marriage proposal, she flees Sydney to her family's abandoned holiday cottage.
On the slow-moving river Phoebe is confronted with the legacy of her older sister's suicide, a year before. Why did Karin leave a note written in flowers and walk into the water?
Phoebe's childhood love, Jez, has moved back to the beautiful old house, Driftwood, one jetty down. He's married now and the home has become a refuge for an unlikely little community.
As the river begins to give up its secrets, Phoebe finds herself caught up in old feelings and new mysteries.
When we meet Phoebe she’s employed by a champagne company and busy hashtagging beautiful pics on instagram. She’s about to head off on a romantic holiday and her life seems picture-perfect.
So naturally we know some horrible fate is about to befall her.
When it all comes crashing down around her she revisits her past. It’s a past we’ve been privy to briefly in a prologue, meeting Phoebe and her sisters Karin and Camilla and childhood friends (brothers) Jez and Tommy, a few decades earlier.
I’d misunderstood the blurb and assumed some nefarious fate had befallen Phoebe’s older sister Karin as a child… and I think that’s because I read A LOT of books about events of years before, revisited much later.
But in fact, her sister only died a year earlier. It felt a little weird that only now Phoebe questions her sister’s suicide. And – though Phoebe ultimately doesn’t agree – the rhetoric around the why was particularly confronting to me.
Karin must have felt like a failure at 38. No husband, no child, alone in the middle of nowhere. p 16
What. The. Actual. Fuck?!
It’s referenced again later – the assumption (predominantly by Phoebe’s younger sister and mother – peas in a pod) – that Karin was SO disappointed in her life that she cut it short. And they didn’t seem to question her her motivation… as if being single, childless and not having an impressive career is sufficient reason for no longer existing.
Phoebe wasn’t sure how Karin’s dignity had been lost. How somewhere along the way it was assumed, in whispered tones at family gatherings, that Karin’s suicide was linked to her lack of a husband and child, her loneliness. Never mind that she was passionate about her business, and looked after a house and property all by herself. p55
So in light of that I realise McCausland herself isn’t claiming middle-aged childless singletons are dispensable. She’s making a point – through Phoebe who’s approaching that stage herself – that others can perceive them thus.
Rant about that aside… being back at their idyllic holiday house has Phoebe wistfully remembering their childhood. Her first love Jez is now married and he and his wife play host to several house guests – a retired Texan banker and former lawyer. There’s a strong sense that the NSW coastal town is a place people who don’t feel they fit elsewhere are drawn. Karin certainly felt at home there and the longer Phoebe spends there, the more she realises her sister was probably contented and her suicide is even less likely.
Being back here among Karin’s things confirmed what Phoebe already knew deep down. Her sister had not been someone deeply unhappy and isolated in her life. She had been someone who watched the quiet slipstream of the river from the deck and absorbed its peace. p 55
She starts to unpick elements of Karin’s life and – naturally – what she uncovers will threaten many of her relationships.
I liked Phoebe and could – of course – relate to her existential crisis, though there are some moral dilemmas for her as well. I liked the family dynamic McCausland introduces around Phoebe and her sisters and their parents. The sides they took (and take). And of course confrontation looms, as well as a reminder things aren’t always as they seem. Phoebe – she of the perfectly-curated instagram feed – realises she should know that better than anyone.
I liked that McCausland didn’t feel obliged to have an excessive climax or crisis at the end of this novel. There is one and closure offered but it didn’t felt overdone or predictable in that way. It felt kinda real. Believable.
I loved the setting of this novel. I’m not a visual person but I got a real sense of the jetty and the river and the sense of contentment in the small coastal community.
There were a couple of distractions: some incidents from their childhood, probably included so that they may be extrapolated into their adult behaviour; but possibly unnecessary and overly complicated. And though I enjoyed (if that’s the right word, as Australia battles a spate of bushfires) the reality of the nearby fires and threats to homes, it also felt a little irrelevant. Again, I guess it gave us a sense of some of the characters, but though it seemed such a big event, it disappeared just as quickly as it started.
I very much enjoyed this book by McCausland though. I think it’s a complex and subtle story reminding us of the strength of family ties. And that we often judge people, even those we know well, with our own baggage skewing our perception. And that everyone’s values are different. And usually justifiable. To them… and that’s all that ultimately matters.
The Lost Summers of Driftwood by Vanessa McCausland will be published in Australia by Harper Collins in mid December 2019.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.