Summer 1976 by Chris Power, 2018
The magic trick:
An effective twist on the first-person-narrator-recalling-childhood-events story
Chris Power’s “A Brief Survey Of The Short Story” series on the Guardian has guided so many of my reading decisions over the last seven years, I’ve lost count. So it’s very exciting to see that he has stepped away from the role of cultural historian and taken a swing at creating some of that culture himself. It’s a little like finding out your friend has been working on a movie script for 10 years without telling you and suddenly you find it’s a movie starring Edward Norton premiering next week at the Toronto Film Festival. A year into the pandemic, it’s very possible I just need to get out more and see my actual friends.
“Summer 1976” leads off Power’s Mothers collection. It tells the story of a young girl, negotiating life in suburban Stockholm with her mother and a not particularly pleasant stepfather. Power does some interesting things here that recreate accurately the way memory is frustratingly incomplete.
Essentially, what we get here is a woman looking back from what she explicitly says is much later in life after these events, trying to understand what these memories mean. As a result, the story becomes oddly fractured. The reader, conditioned to expect neat resolutions and plot circles that connect, finds loose threads and tangents.
The girl remembers specifics about a boy who lived next door, a kiss, some trouble with the landlord. So the story builds along those memories. But it becomes clear that these issues are mere McGuffins. The narrator is most concerned with trying to remember and understand her mother.
And there is progress. Memories of conversations or even specific looks in the mother’s eyes take on new meaning with the narrator’s now adult perspective. The problem is the memories keep falling short. The narrator, as a girl, falls asleep just when something might start to make sense. Other memories are limited to what happened, not why it happened, because of course the memories were formed by a girl.
The McGuffin plot about the boy next door becomes a perfect illustration. The events show us a girl who is running around doing a hundred things at once, feeling a million things more – none of it with any understood rationale. Because she’s a lonely, confused kid. So, while, there isn’t any traditional resolution to that plot, it serves an important function in the story, fundamentally giving the reader an idea of what it all was like back then: a big, confusing emotional mess of events.
It’s a very interesting twist on the adult-first-person-narrator-recalling-childhood-events thing.
And that’s quite a trick on Power’s part.
I woke up back in bed. Mum was sitting by my feet smoking a cigarette. The apartment was quiet. I shifted position, expecting her to turn, but she didn’t react at all. I watched her face in the light from the sodium lamps on the neighbouring buildings, the ones that stayed on all night. She was almost expressionless, eyes starting. I decided she was thinking about Dad, or talking to him even. Letting him know how we were.
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