9780393345582_p0_v3_s260x420Reviewed by A.D. Cole

In his debut novel, a Southern Gothic thriller, practicing psychologist Tom Wright crafts a beautiful, brilliant, and thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age story. Jim, otherwise known as Biscuit, is haunted with a heightened ability of sensory perception. It’s just enough that he can know something is coming, but not enough that he can do anything about it. When his cousin L.A. comes to live with him and their grandmother, he is further haunted by the mystery of her silence.

One day, the two cousins stumble across the body of a young girl, mutilated and posed for the killer’s own sadistic amusement. Naturally Jim is disturbed. But when it comes out that this is the third in a series of killings, he realizes that his nightmares have had more in common with reality than he wants to admit. As events unfold, Jim slowly learns that his visions, L.A.’s silence, and the murders, are all connected; and that their outcome is inevitable.

Wright explores the close relationship of cousins; the twisted motives behind rape and murder; and the damaging effects of silence within families. He does this against the backdrop of an eerie, ethereal version of Dallas, and as told by the voice of Jim, a teenage boy struggling with the burden of his own abusive past and his need to be a man, solid and dependable, for his grandmother and cousin. Jim’s dreams, the bizarre behaviors of some of the side characters, and the startling incident with the storm (as shocking as a Biblical plague), all blend together to give this story a sense of otherworldly power, without actually pushing it into the realm of the supernatural.

Wright’s novel is populated with some of the most interesting supporting cast I’ve ever seen. There’s Colossians O’Dell, the hobo with a beautiful singing voice. Froggy, the convenience store owner whose colorful stories draw Jim and L.A. back time and time again. Dee, a sensitive artist and homosexual in a family that accepts neither of these traits. And Dr. Kepler, the infamous atheist, who serves as a spiritual guide for Jim, despite her refusal to participate in religion.

Many of the blurbs say that this story is about loss of innocence. But I think, for Jim, it’s closer to say it’s about the gradual shedding of innocence. Over the course of the murder investigation, Jim sees and experiences things that open his eyes to the evil in the world. Even though he comes from an abused past, the abuse was a danger he understood and possibly even felt comfortable with. At the conclusion of the book, he is living in a different world than the one he started with. But in a way, he is always reaching and striving for knowledge and understanding. So he is an active participant in the shedding of his own innocence.

I was also drawn to Jim’s insecurity and his need to be useful. There’s a scene when someone asks him to help end her life by crushing up some pills in applesauce. Jim trusts this person to know what she wants and he goes to the kitchen and follows her instructions. When he returns, he wakes her up, and she sees what he’s done. She cries and apologizes and tells him she should never have asked him to do it. In that moment, Jim stares down at his hands and cries at what he perceives to be yet another failure to be of service. He seems to want to protect. To help. To offer something worthwhile back to the people he loves. And he is constantly disappointed with his own, ineffectual attempts to do so. I found this endearing and heartbreaking.

There’s much more I could say about What Dies in Summer. If you don’t like it from the first sentence, then put it down. But I think you will. At times and in places it becomes difficult to read, due to some of the violent descriptions, but the overall novel is incredibly lyrical and enjoyable.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.