The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

‘Never had there been such a bad year as this.’

In 1815, Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (then part of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) exploded.  This powerful volcanic eruption killed thousands immediately, led to the starvation of thousands more, and had a massive impact on the world’s climate in 1816.  The Year Without Summer, as 1816 came to be known, caused famine resulting in poverty and riots.  Snow fell in the northern hemisphere in August.

‘It was the end of times; he knew of no other reason for it.’

In this novel, Ms Glasfurd imagines the impact of The Year Without Summer through the lives of six different people.  The six people include a Fenland farm labourer, a preacher in Vermont, a doctor on a ship, a war veteran, as well as the author Mary Shelley and the painter John Constable.

None of these stories are related, each serves to highlight the impact of The Year Without Summer.  John Constable’s painting was influenced by changes to light, Mary Shelley struggled to find a story to write.  The Vermont preacher persuades people not to move and has to live with the consequences.  The ship’s doctor describes what he sees in the ocean off the Dutch East Indies, and how helpless he is.  The war veteran and the Fenland farm labourer are both caught up in riots as crops fail, wages fall, and producers seek to mechanise labour-intensive work.

‘The year of 1816 was one of flood and fire, of popular protest and revolutionary struggle, of Constable’s art and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.’

As I read this novel, in Australia in January 2020, I am surrounded by fires.  Some of those fires have resulted from weather caused by existing fires.  In the north, there has been some flooding, close by a massive hailstorm.  The impact of climatic events is all too real.  I found this novel difficult to put down.  While the six stories are not interrelated, they don’t need to be.  One purpose of the narrative is to imagine the widespread impact of such a climate disaster.

Unsettling.  Highly recommended.  I just wish I could confine it all to fiction.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith