The French region of Luberon is popular with tourists and wealthy Parisians. They find the southern accents charming and the scenery bucolic. But who are the people building their villas? Who populates the villages? Who speaks with the accents that they find so beguiling? Families such as the one that this novel is centred around are who: working-class families that are living hand to mouth and who’s lives are ones of quiet desperation.
Sixteen-year-old Céline is pregnant and won’t tell her family who the father is. Her fifteen-year-old sister, Jo, is a tomboy and more worldly-wise. She has dreams of escaping this small-town life, and out of all the family, she’s the one most likely to make it. Severine, their mother, is like Céline: at one time she had it all, was the one every boy wanted, but then she got pregnant young, settled down, and her dreams were dashed. Manuel is the father, a gruff son of Spanish immigrants, a man whose ancestry has him feel an outsider in his French homeland, and who is too fond of a drink and too quick to use his fists. On the periphery of the family are Manuel’s friend, Patrick, and his wife, Valérie. Then there's Saïd, a childhood friend of the girls with a soft spot for Jo, who lives just down the road.
At heart, this is a novel about desperation. Céline’s pregnancy is the catalyst that brings tensions that have long bubbled beneath the surface to the fore. Jo has always longed for escape, and the escalating family strife brings this to a sharper focus. Severine and Valérie each feels unfulfilled by their respective marriages and live lives of regret. Both now see and experience this more clearly in the aftermath of Céline’s shock pregnancy. But it is Manuel, and to a lesser extent Patrick, for whom Céline’s pregnancy has the most devastating psychological consequences. They have long fostered resentments and slights, felt their masculinity and pride under threat, and the pregnancy awakens this ever further.
The Summer of Reckoning could have been set in many a post-industrial setting around the world, where those working in traditional industries have long felt threatened by immigration and globalisation. These are the people who have all too often been forgotten and courted by the political extremes. While such politics don’t feature in this novel, one can well imagine Manuel being seduced by the politics of the far-right, and his willingness to blame his Arab neighbours, and in particular, his daughters’ friend, Saïd, is particularly troubling.
A brilliant novel with no easy answers and no unrealistic and rosy culmination, this is a very powerful read.
5 out of 5 stars