Book Review: Speaking of Summer: A Novel
Book Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene
Mental illness in fiction provides a lens and a relatively safe space by which readers can examine its complexity and impact on the lives of the individual, families and friends. We have seen these stories in classics such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Susan Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted. Kalisha Buckhanon, in her most recent novel, Speaking of Summer examines mental illness in a fast-paced suspense mystery that explores the strange disappearance of Summer, the protagonist’s twin sister. Buckhanon expands the narratives depicting mental illness in fiction and creates a story which centers on a young Black woman’s emotional pain as she attempts to deal with the loss of a person who has been her confidante, friend, and ally for years.
The protagonist, Autumn Spencer, a victim of emotional and sexual abuse, has survived trauma in her early life. Never addressed, the effects of this trauma contribute to her escape into an alternate world and impact her ability to work, sleep and function. The trauma intensifies when her sister goes missing. As Autumn continues the search for Summer, the reader witnesses her slow descent into mental illness. Autumn’s fear and anxiety as a result of the loss of her sister are profound. She has lost a part of herself. Her relationship with her sister brings to mind Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine, a novel that explores what happens when one twin sister dies while the other remains in a coma for months. The psychological connection between the twins is intense as it is between Summer and Autumn.
Buckhanon’s use of the names Summer and Autumn provides further context for the emotional bond between the sisters. Summer, the light, the one who gives comfort to Autumn disappears. Autumn begins to symbolically die without the light of Summer. The bond, now fractured, shatters. The invisibility of women and violence are major themes in the novel. Buckhanon begins her discussion of invisibility and violence by using the second person in the prologue; this technique immediately draws the reader into the story. She states: “If you saw me trip and burst my lip, you were right; it really did hurt. If you thought I was being chased and you failed to call the police, I thank you for your apathy.” Autumn continues by informing her readers that they would never have known her unless she had made the news and was murdered, that people only remember you if you have a story to tell, and that whoever came for her sister will also come for her. However, she will not be silenced. She recognizes that she is invisible and will only be made visible after a violent act. Autumn cautions the reader that she will not allow this to happen.
The themes of invisibility and violence are pervasive throughout the novel and raise awareness about a society that has lost a sense of community. As Autumn looks for her sister, she is told that the search for a missing person will be difficult because she has no death certificate. She googles the number of deaths in Harlem and her google account reveals that an excessive number of Black women have been killed. This reveals an alarming fact about the value of the lives of Black women.
Speaking of Summer raises critical questions for the reader: What are the support mechanisms for women who experience trauma? How does one survive in an environment which provides little or no support for people who become emotionally disconnected? What can be done to address the violence perpetrated against Black women? Buckhanon has written an emotionally packed tale that reveals the fragility of the human experience for a Black woman in urban New York.
Brenda M. Greene is Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Professor of English at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.