Black Dog Summer * Miranda Sherry

I got this book in the bargain bin section of my local bookstore and since it’s nearly summer, I thought it would make a light read. I was wrong! The book starts off with a murder and it deals with loss and depression and life as a white person in South Africa. South Africa post apartheid is a pretty scary place for a white farmer. There has been (and still is) so much killing of the farmers in the more remote regions of the country. In the book, the killing took place on a farm that tried to conserve and save the animals of this region. The culture too I found fascinating, the mix between the beliefs of the past and those of the present.

“A vision of a black dog is a warning sign…but seeing the black dog in the clouds? That forecasts murder”.

In this extraordinary debut novel reminiscent of The Lovely Bones and Little Bee, a mother watches from the afterlife as her teenage daughter recovers amidst the startling dysfunction of her extended family.
A small, bright thread of a story weaves out from the moment of my passing and seems to tether me to this place. Perhaps this is why I have not left yet. Perhaps I have no choice but to follow the story to its end.

Black Dog Summer begins with a murder, a farmstead massacre, in the South African bush.

Estranged from her sister, Adele, and in love with Liam, Adele’s husband, Sally
escapes to the South African bush with her young daughter, Gigi. She stays at
her friend Simone’s family farm, which has been converted into a sanctuary for
injured wildlife, close to the border with Zimbabwe.
Simone is called away to Scotland and, in her absence, men raid the farm and
kill Sally and the two white men they find there. Gigi is discovered, hours after
the massacre, cradling her mother’s body and covered in her dried blood. She is
taken to hospital and then – still traumatised – discharged into the care of her
Uncle Liam and Aunt Adele and returns to their house to stay with them and
their two children, Tyler and Bryony.
In vain, Sally’s spirit tries to leave Africa, but her niece Bryony’s story calls to
her, drawing her back to the world of the living. She visits each person involved in Bryony’s story, reaching into their thoughts and sensing the bitterness of
their grief at her loss and their anger at the manner of her passing. Bryony is in
terrible danger – but from whence does the threat issue?

Bryony becomes confused and frightened by the violent energy stirred up and awakened by the massacre, while Gigi is unable to see beyond her deep grief and guilt. But they are not the only ones aware of the lurking darkness. Next door lives Lesedi, a reluctant witch doctor who hides her mystical connection with the dead.

As Gigi finally begins to emerge from her grief, she receives some shattering news, and in a mistaken effort to protect her cousin, puts Bryony’s life in imminent danger. Now Sally must find a way to prevent her daughter from making a mistake that could destroy the lives of all who are left behind.

The noise comes from Africa’s stories being told. Millions upon millions of them; some told in descending liquid notes like the call of the Burchell’s coucal before the rain, and some like the full roar of Johannesburg traffic. Some of these stories are ancient and wear fossilized coats of red dust and others are so fresh that they gleam with umbilical wetness

 

I love this book. I love the setting, the black dogs, the ominous and foreboding atmosphere. The sense of tension — especially between family members — is so well-crafted that it practically rose off of the pages like heatwaves.

I love Bryony as a character. I wasn’t sure at first — I heard the name and instantly thought of Atonement, and that sets the standard pretty high in the characterization department. But I needn’t have worried, because Bryony is fantastic and feels so, so real.

I love the characters in general — how frustrating some of them are, how realistically they interact with each other, how anxious and upset I felt on Bryony’s behalf. And given that the book is effectively in third person, that is no small feat. The amount that Bryony’s story affected me, that’s something I usually only get from first person point of view.

Which brings me to the point of view, which I also loved. Having the narrator be dead and find herself drawn to people’s individual stories, that I found incredibly compelling. And while I’m not usually big on paranormal aspects in books, this was an amazing portrayal of the afterlife, of connectedness, of a mother’s love for her daughter.

A hauntingly intoxicating story of how the spirit world entwines with the lives
of those left behind after a family tragedy. A fascinating read which immerses
us deep into the Johannesburg landscape

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