“Speaking of Summer,” author Kalisha Buckhanon’s latest novel, follows Autumn Spencer, a rural Midwesterner transplanted to New York City. Autumn starts the novel with her mother recently dead of cancer and her twin sister, the Summer of the title, having disappeared mysteriously from the roof of their Harlem brownstone. Armed with almost zero clues and the assumption that society won’t care about a missing black woman, Autumn goes on a one-woman crusade to find her sister, dead or alive.
From the summary, you might assume “Speaking of Summer” is a thriller or a mystery novel, but you’d be mistaken. “Speaking of Summer” is Trojan Horse literature, a deception planted by an unreliable narrator lying both to the audience and herself. Instead of delivering genre thrills, Buckhanon takes us on a walking tour of a breakdown. Stress and loss throw Autumn into a tailspin, turning her search for her sister into a destructive obsession as she sheds friends, jobs and lovers. As seasons change from winter to spring to summer, bottles of wine and bags of junk food pile up in her apartment, her reserves of cash dwindle to nothing, and Autumn comes no closer to finding her sister. What she instead finds, or rather rediscovers, is a hidden family trauma manifested as present delusion.
At the risk of spoiling it, “Speaking of Summer” is a literary descendant of Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina,” except the defining trauma is buried in the far past rather than the novel’s central action. Likewise, Autumn is a descendant of Allison’s Bone, except all grown-up and decades removed from the familial horror story that struck each of their young lives. In “Speaking of Summer,” Buckhanon’s focuses on the story that Allison stopped short of telling: how one struggles and manages to live a life after a terrible and unspeakable act ends childhood.
While “Speaking of Summer” is a story of breakdown, it’s also one of recovery. The last leg of the novel features Autumn picking up the pieces from not only her formative trauma, but of her ongoing breakdown, following her as she repairs the bonds she let fray and forms new ones along the way. When “Speaking of Summer” pulls the veil back from its foundational deceit, it’s far more interesting and engaging than the rote promise it leaves unfulfilled.
“Speaking of Summer”
Counterpoint, 304 Pages, $26
Kalisha Buckhanon discusses “Speaking of Summer” at The Seminary Coop, July 30, 6pm.