I confess: I am a complete and unapologetic lover of fictional novels that showcase the complexities and nuances of femininity and the female experience, with a purposeful exploration into romantic and platonic female relationships. This year especially has seen me dissolve into novels that address the impacts of internal misogyny, fickle friendships and boundaries of consent in a society that has reconstructed modern feminism, provided a space for women to ‘disassociate’ and challenged accepted gender roles.
Katie Bishop’s debut novel, The Girls of Summer, falls into a similar category. Painstakingly exploring the fragility of memories and the complexities of trauma and loss, Bishop’s dual-timeline novel manoeuvres back and forth between one sun-soaked summer on an unnamed Greek island and present-time sixteen years later, where protagonist Rachel is forced to confront her past and relationship with the mysterious Alistair. Bishop manages to crack open the impacts of sexual exploitation and manipulation, showing how the past and present are entwined. Despite Bishop’s care of the undoubtedly disturbing content and subject matter, the novel feels somewhat flat and one-dimensional.
Bishop utilises a tone that flows from reminiscent to confronting to detrimental, all three deliberately chosen to mimic the real-life experience of trauma. Bishop is acutely aware of the psychological, cognitive and emotional turmoil of a young woman who has forced her past memories into a digestible, present-day narrative she can live with. This completely shines through Bishop’s writing and is one of the novel’s most notable strengths. We see Rachel struggle to connect with her husband, who wants a baby when it is later revealed that she fell pregnant and received an abortion for the child she had originally wanted. We see Rachel actively seek out Alistair after many years, the man who played a role in her sexual exploitation during that summer sixteen years before. We see Rachel continuously reject and rebuke the other women's attempts on the island to go public with their trauma and demand justice in the present. With this in mind, Bishop successfully balances past and previous narratives as simultaneously disjointed and inclusive of each other, with the experience of trauma displayed as non-linear.
The slow-burn pacing works to build and maintain a satisfactory atmospheric feel. Bishop’s opening chapter, written in high-stakes italics, sets up the novel as suspenseful and volatile. The readers constantly feel uneasy by being drip-fed tiny slices of information that seemingly pool together in a string of events that fail to appear clear at first. While reading The Girls of Summer, I went into it knowing virtually nothing, which kept me reeling into the early morning, anticipating the new details that would bring me closer to understanding the novel’s climatic point. The slow unravelment of the plot acts like the ticking of a clock, whereby the reader is forced to absorb the small moments and surroundings. It’s easy to imagine the sound of waves lapping at the beach, the relentless noise of the island’s bars and dance clubs and empathise with being loose-limbed after drinking too much alcohol. These seemingly work to activate the inherent human nature of the reader, who is then more able to understand and sympathise with Rachel’s internal emotions and conscience.
The Girls of Summer is heavily stocked with long expositions, which frequently feel superfluous. It is fair to say that Bishop sought to adopt such large blocks of descriptions as a way to consolidate a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative, which could have worked really well if used with more moderation. Sometimes, the descriptions feel necessary and lyrical–such as the opening chapter and insights into Rachel and Tom’s rocky marriage–yet these feel shadowed and often get lost. I found myself at times becoming disinterested in the novel; it’s easy to feel bored with the slow progression of the plot without it being balanced with compelling points of dialogue. With this in mind, the novel feels like Bishop tells us everything and nothing simultaneously.
Unfortunately, Bishop’s characters seem to appear as lacking depth. Tom is minimised to the annoying, baby-crazy husband who has completely lost touch with Rachel and her needs. Helena feels nothing more than a shadow of Rachel’s past, with most of her personal challenges only revealed at the very end in small doses. Jules’ only personality trait is being Rachel’s best friend, but touching moments between them seem disjointed and jarring as the novel jumps from the past to the present. The only characters that feel completely realistic and multidimensional are Alistair and Rachel. Alistair is the perfectly and painfully realistic toxic perpetrator, complete with all the trademark gaslighting behaviours and emotional manipulation tactics (ie manipulating Rachel into believing the pair were and continue to be in love despite a twenty-year age group and his complacency in sexual abuse). These two are the only characters that really give the plot any real momentum.
The Girls of Summer is a twisty and atmospheric read packed with enough juice to keep you wanting to read more, but I do not believe the writing style worked for me. Of course, the subject matter is highly relevant and important, but the execution just didn’t cut it. I won’t say I will give up on Bishop’s future works, but I will approach them with caution.