The Last Days of Summer is set in a Texas prairie town. It tells the story of Jasper Curtis, a convicted felon released from Huntsville prison. He returns home after serving 10 years for a heinous crime to a town where he isn’t wanted.
His sister Lizzie agrees to take him in. She lives with her two daughters, teenager Katie and 11-year-old Joanne. Lizzie's marriage collapsed shortly after Jasper was arrested, and as the town reacts with hostility, she gets a visit from Reverend Gordon, asking ‘You sure you know who you’re lettin into your home?’ ‘Where else he gonna go?’ she replies. Lizzie has no idea if Jasper is the brother she grew up loving or a monster.
Prairie dust, heat, hate and small town mentality combine with the time-bomb of Jasper, a man with a shady sexual desire and past living in an isolated location with two attractive young girls and a sister who can’t turn him away.
There is a slow pace for most of the story, giving the sense that nothing and everything is happening. This is counterbalanced by Ronan’s use of present tense narrative which is told from four points of view’ Jasper, Lizzie, Katie and Joanne. Short, snappy sentences add a sense of immediacy as if dark clouds of danger are constantly hovering. This novel is gripping and atmospheric, although if you’re looking for a fast-paced page turner, this isn’t it.
From the outset, Jasper, the felon, hasn’t given up on God, whilst Lizzie, the good woman, has, and these types of contradictions set the reader up for a messy and complicated landscape.
This novel is not for the fainthearted and is uncomfortable reading at times. On one occasion when Jasper is alone with Joanne, he recalls the paedophile he met in prison and states he understands how young girls got him ticking. Another time he meets a young mother and wonders if he sucked her tits would he get milk. The barbaric description of his original crime is difficult too, as is the incident when he skins a rabbit alive. Each beg the question if these elements exist for shock value or whether we’ve become watered down in our fictional approach to evil.
Certainly, Ronan rackets up the anxiety in a variety of ways, with secrets and half-truths about what Jasper really did all those years before. The threat of violent outbursts from him and others in the town, coupled with Jasper’s deviant introspection and heightened sexual desire towards women, including his nieces, keeps the reader on edge. Unusually, there are no chapter breaks in this novel, adding a form of relentlessness in how the story is told. It should be exhausting, but rather it propels the reader forward.
All the characters in this story are flawed, with the exception of young Joanne, who serves as a vacuum of innocence, befriending Jasper when others loathe him. Each member of the town is trapped in much the same way as Jasper was incarcerated - no one is leaving. Hate, danger, fear and small town bias serve to keep all the inhabitants as potential victims of themselves and the insidious locked in element becomes the backdrop for revenge.
The main character, Jasper, has two strands to his personality. One the reader can relate to when he shows his ability to care and wishes the rest of the world could see him the way Joanne does. ‘I want to feel human again,’ he tells Lizzie, ‘I want to feel close enough to normal.’ This draws on the reader’s empathy, but the gulf between this and his darker side is often contradictory, which partially dilutes the character’s credibility.
The unhurried pace of the story as it builds to a finale leaves you with high expectations of what’s to come, like a heavy rain shower after hours of overhanging darkness. The finale is violent and tough, but lacks the poetic, atmospheric, descriptive style of the earlier part of the novel, and overall, it didn’t give the dividend the previous pages dictated.