Book review: The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books)

 

Life isn’t very good with second chances.

We wish it was, and many is the time we reflect back on an incident, big or small, innocuous or catastrophic and wish we could have said something different, done something unexpected, or frankly, not gone through the whole thing.

But life and time are not that kind, and all those quick rejoinders and wiser decisions die a quick death on the fire of impossible things with no way to go back and relive those precious regretted times.

What if though, wonders Rowan Coleman in The Summer of Impossible Things, if you could go back and make a profound difference to just not one part of your life but the entirety of your existence and those you love most?

What would you do? Would you be brave enough to do anything at all or would you recoil from all that rich and potent possibility, shrug your shoulders and simply accept the permanence of your current reality?

Or would you, much like the protagonist Luna who slowly but surely realises what a gift she  has been given, do something desperately, amazingly and life-changingly brave with it.

“‘But how are you?’ she asks finally. ‘I mean really.
I hesitate; if I were to answer that question accurately I’d say full of rage and grief, terrified and lost, unsure and unable to find a sure-footed place to stand. But I don’t. Our beloved mother died from an overdose, and, even after a lifetime of a family that revolved around her depression, we didn’t see it coming in time to save her, and I can’t forgive myself for that. And more than that, there’s a stranger inside me, a stranger who is me, a crucial part of me I don’t have any reference for, and that unnerves me.” (PP. 13-14)

No prizes for guessing what Luna, who loses her mother to suicide, a horrifically targic event that is followed by a deeply-unpalatable revelation, chooses to do.

The Summer of Impossible Things is after all a 400 and change page novel, so she’s hardly going to make a snap decision and be done with it.

The beauty of Coleman’s emotionally insightful writing, which does verge a little on the melodramatically-intense at times but which mostly rings true, is that she sustains Luna’s gradual acceptance from astonishment and disbelief at her ability to travel back in time to 1977 Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to the events which set her once-vibrant mother on a tragic path to indecision at what it could all mean to a firm resolve that this magical ability is a gift and cannot be squandered.

The magical realism at the heart of the narrative is woven naturally into the events of the novel which mostly concern a trip by Luna and younger sister Pia back to their mother’s native New York to sort out her estate in the event of her untimely death.

Their father Henry, an Englishman who wooed their mother when he was in Bay Ridge documenting the filming of Saturday Night Fever, has stayed back in the UK, leaving the two young women to sort through a welter of unsettling, caustic emotions, all of which are heightened by being back in their mother’s old neighbourhood and meeting a slew of people who knew her very well, when she was in unabashedly upbeat early twentysomething prime.

 

Rowan Coleman (photo courtesy Penguin Books)

 

Were it not for Luna’s suddenly unexpected ability to travel back in time 40 years earlier, a talent which doesn’t announce itself but simply appears one night leaving Luna doubting her own sanity or long-term good health, her story and that of her sister would be like any other – insurmountable grief, overpowering regret and the grinding sense that life cannot be redeemed or changed and they are stuck with its cold and unflinching hand.

But Luna’s gift, which comes hand-in-hand with some exhaustingly difficult questions, changes this well-worn dynamic, for Luna at least, with the very real possibility, though with no guarantee of success that events can be changed, and life, for once at least, can be made to recount its immutable toll.

As soon Luna gets to know her mother Marissa as a real person and not simply as a parent, and is drawn ever deeper, in fits and starts into the circle of her friends, which includes sweet and sensitive writer-wannabe Michael, she comes to appreciate that she has been a rare and unmissable opportunity to wrestle with life and come out a winner.

The price, as you can imagine, could be profound, possibly as high as that of her own life, a price she finds herself willing to pay, emboldened by the kind of bravery that only love, real, selfless love can generate.

“‘It happened again.’ Wearily, every one of my limbs stiff and sore, I take a seat beside her, resting the package beside me on the step. It has aged thirty years in the last three minutes. The paper is faded and foxed, the string that ties it thin and unravelling.
‘It happened so quickly, right there, right in the hall outside Michelle’s office. It was quicker this time, more violent. I feel like the more I do it, the less of me there is to make the transition, so the faster it is, the easier it is in a way. But every time it happens, it hurts me. And I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough control over it, over me.'” (P. 269)

Now, if at this point in proceedings, you’re thinking this sounds all a bit overwrought and ludicrously fantastical, Coleman balances her storytelling beautifully between real, intense, confronting emotions and the sweet promise of life renewed and changed in the most amazing of ways, leaving The Summer of Impossible Things as that rare literary creature that manages to be achingly authentic and excitingly possible and reality-defying all at once.

It beautifully executes that do-over fantasy we have all had, and does it with real insight and understanding, making it clear that fantastical though the possibilities and their consequences might be, they are rooted in painful, all-too-real emotions that assail everyone at one time or another.

So while you are inextricably drawn into Luna’s unreal experiences, and root her on as she stands between two times, two worlds, each with their own realities good and bad, you never lose sight of what’s at stake, of how damaged everything is and how impossible it is that it could ever be repaired.

The Summer of Impossible Things is in many ways a fantasy, and even its brilliant ending plays into that too, but Coleman succeeds in ways big and small with anchoring her off-the-wall premise in the truest, richest and most real of human experiences in such a way that not only will you relate to Luna’s impossible tale but you will wish it were somehow possible to conjure the same miracle for yourself.

 

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books)

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