When Peirene Press got in touch with the first instalment of their new East and West series – a psychological thriller set in 20th century Russia – I replied straight away with “sign me up”. Written by German author Ricarda Huch and translated into English by Jamie Bulloch, The Last Summer is sinister in its subtlety.
Fear is the worst. I think that fear has unnerved me so much that I can no longer take pleasure in anything, nor can I even summon any from myself.
The Last Summer is told via a series of letters from the family of the Governor of St. Petersburg and his newly appointed bodyguard. Having just made the decision to close the state university, the governor finds himself at the centre of student unrest, even receiving anonymous death threats while staying with his wife and children at their summer residence. Anxious for her husband’s life, the Governor’s wife hires young bodyguard Lyu to protect the family, but little does she know that she may have just placed her husband’s life in the most dangerous hands of them all…
Wielding the epistolary format to great effect, Huch carefully reveals only slithers of information to her readers via brief exchanges between the characters. This intimate and intrusive glimpse into their letters soon leaves you feeling implicated in the welfare of the Governor’s family, as well as endowing you with the unpleasant knowledge of greater motives unbeknown to the family. Despite having said this, the reader also often feels left in the dark and at the mercy of the characters’ various (often conflicting) agendas, only able to gleam as much insight as the characters deem to share in their letters.
You refrained from writing so that, were I mortally ill or dead, the letter should not fall into the wrong hands. Now the danger is past.
By choosing to tell The Last Summer in epistolary form, Huch expertly builds tension while we passively watch events speed by with just the short markers provided by the letters to keep us abreast of events. By playing off our knowledge of Lyu’s intentions against the innocent obliviousness of the unknowing family, Huch quickens the pace until the climatic (and brilliant) ending. There were so many times I found myself pulling my hair out when I thought the family were about to touch upon the truth or that Lyu had changed his designs! With all the subtext and reading between the lines implicit in the letters, it feels like so much more is packed into this novel than you’d expect in its 121 pages.
Will there ever be a man who can gaze at beauty without torment, without the divine execrable strong of the soul?
Despite the short length of the novel, Huch manages to convey these really well-rounded characters just through a series of letters, even giving tangibility to absent figures such as Lyu’s accomplice Konstantin. Lyu is a particularly fantastic antagonist – conflicted, complex and conniving, you spend most of the book contemplating your own feelings in regards to him and his motives (much in the same way the governor’s family does). Between Lyu’s likeability and the picturesque portraits of the governor’s family life, it’s difficult to tell where your loyalties lie.
Gripping until the very last letter, The Last Summer is an intense read that will leave you on the edge of your seat. By exploiting the letter form, Huch’s novel cleverly plays off the characters’ varying levels of knowledge against each other and ultimately implicates the reader in their plight, making for a riveting thriller and unputdownable read.
Disclaimer: This book was kindly sent to me to review by Peirene Press. All opinions expressed here are my own.