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Novel set in the Florida Keys (A Storm is coming..)

13th January 2015

Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye, novel set in the Florida Keys.

IMG_3111A mesmerising story set in the Florida Keys of the 1930s, when America was in the vice-like grip of the Great Depression.

Daily life was easier in this area of the U.S. than for many other states, nevertheless it had its own set of problems. The East Coast Railway stretched down to Key West, bringing tourists to feast upon the still plentiful food and enjoy the luscious beaches. It was also a time of high racial tension. A group of WW1 veterans – homeless, jobless and denied their bonuses by the Government – arrives in Heron Key to work on a public works project. For the most part, the locals (the “Conches”) eye this disparate group of sometimes irascible men with great hostility, and this is the story of two segregated communities coming together to find an equitable way of living side by side, the impending hurricane of 1935 on the horizon – in the story it is set on 4th July although the real storm occurred on Labor Day. And apparently it was the most powerful ever to hit America.

This is Vanessa Lafaye’s debut novel, and what a writer she is! She has a talent with words that enables her prose to glide across the page, there are no superfluous words, and each paragraph eases the story along. She is a natural creator of atmosphere and suspense, and with a deft hand she creates credible, yet humanly flawed characters. She also creates a very palpable setting, the heat, the oppressive temperatures and the gurgling, sulphurous swampland all assault the reader’s senses.

There is Missy who works for the Kincaid family and takes care of their baby Nathan. The book opens as she and Selma set about dismembering an alligator who has attempted to snatch the baby. Hilda Kincaid is troubled in her marriage, and Dwayne Campbell, the local Sheriff, has to manage the friction in the community, and bear the shame of his wife having produced a mixed-race baby. Henry is a member of the veterans group and tries to deny the emotional bond between himself and Missy. Overall, they are a disparate group of people, as in any community, all gearing up to attend the annual beach barbecue; all the while the storm clouds are gathering on all fronts.

As the party warms up, so do the temperaments. A small fight breaks out, people leave and as the storm starts to lash across the town. A white woman is found alive but mutilated. Suspicion points to one perpetrator. Race issues are magnified, and chaos descends with a vengeance on the whole area, as it is engulfed by the horrific storm. And this is where the colour drains from the story. The scene is set in the pitch of night, people are driving to escape, finding shelter in the local store or trying to leave by train. The hissing, roiling water from the sea engulfs many – and gradually the story reveals those who die and those who survive. The prose moves from the fluid, languorous descriptions of the early chapters, to mechanical, jagged passages that reflect the jarring chaos of survival, raw humanity, and limbs torn from limb, snagged, and caught on objects that are jettisoned by the tremendous winds and waves. It has become the scene of a battle ground of the elements.

Peace and the humdrum rhythm of daily life, of course, eventually return, but no-one who survived the terrible ordeal is mentally, emotionally or physically the same. The scars are everywhere.

Vanessa Lafaye is definitely an author to watch.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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