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The Summer without MenThe Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Not telling is just as interesting as telling I have found. Why speech, that short verbal journey from inside to outside can be excruciating under certain circumstances is fascinating.”

Meet Mia; a successful poet, writer and University lecturer who after 30 years of marriage succumbs to ‘hysteria’, thanks to Boris (the emotionally wooden husband) and his mid-life French fling (the ‘pause’). This is a story of temporary mental break-down, of having the rug pulled out from underneath you and the long, arduous journey to getting back on solid ground.

Yes, Siri Hustvedt takes the 17th Century ‘mad woman in the attic’ syndrome and applies it to a modern scenario. Like most stories of its ilk it follows the traditional path of woman goes nuts, moves out, quickly decamps home to mum’s house whereupon she simmers in self-loathing and the incessant ‘why, why, why’ of the situation. Meanwhile Boris the bastard keeps in touch, telling his shelved wife exactly what’s going on in his life with ‘the pause’ (we are not given a name. Remember, Mia is a poet. Literary devices can and will be used to dehumanise the offending party!)

Now, the interesting thing about this book is that even though Hustvedt follows
a tried-and-tested story arc, there are some pretty unusual moments that caught me off guard. For one, the language oscillates between poetry and prose. Not only that, the narrative is constantly being interrupted and dissected by diary entries, emails, notes and random letters. As the reader, we aren’t really given any prior notice to these and it’s a little unsettling to adjust oneself to what’s going on. The timeline is also a bit inconsistent as Mia goes back and forth between present and past without warning. One of my other gripes is the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to emphasise a certain point, which in my opinion was completely unnecessary. Italics could have done the job nicely.

Despite these faults, I found ‘The Summer Without Men’ to be a surprisingly intelligent read. Do not pick up this book if you expect it to be an easy ride. Hustvedt’s prose rises and falls like a tide. Sometimes when the tide is low our attention is drawn to things in the shallows, but when it swells it demands we keep up with a narrative full of deep philosophical and literary musings. I had a lot of fun in the ‘high’ moments, because Hustvedt is raising the bar, inviting us to ride the crest of a certain idea. During these moments I could sense an author at her peak powers, flexing the feminine literary muscle at the male novelists.

However ‘The Summer Without Men’ is not an overly feminist work. Hustvedt does look deeply at the role of woman, be it literary value or otherwise, but I never got the sense that she was hitting the opposite sex over the head. The various characters that come into Mia’s life are all women with problems of their own. It doesn’t matter if they are seven or seventy; every female has their own style of going mad or staying sane. From Flora, the toddler who refuses to take off her wig, to Abigail a seventy year old saint of the ‘Secret Amusements’, this is an alternative look at the many ways we women cope with the ‘cracks of life’.

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