In an eerie tale that rends the bright fabric of childhood innocence, The Dead of Summer is a shocking reminder of the dark things that fester in the human psyche, untended and ignored.
The landscape is Greenwich, England, circa 1986, where Anita Naidu’s half-English, half-Pakistani family has moved after the death of her mother, all of their meager belongings carried into the new place in cardboard boxes. Thirteen-year-old Anita, who alone of her siblings bears the dusky skin and shadowed eyes of her father, accepts isolation as her due, her mother no longer available to share bitter secrets and fears.
As teenaged twin sisters and a brother make their own way and an interfering, blowsy neighbor sets her sights on the passive widower, Anita goes to her new school with few expectations, accustomed to other people’s demeaning jokes. Seated next to another social outcast, the overweight, dark-skinned Denis, Anita slips easily into her role, asking questions that Denis answers with inane questions of his own.
It is Denis’s friend, Kyle Kite, who captures Anita’s interest, an enigmatic, quiet boy who lives across the street from Anita’s fragmented family. Intense and taciturn, Kyle has been an object of gossip since the disappearance of his little sister, Katie, a year before, no trace of the little girl ever found.
At summer break, Anita tags along as the two boys make daily forays into the wild fields, salvage yards and muddy banks of the Thames in search of the elusive sand caves used for shelter in wartime. Anita studies Kyle, his astonishing eyes “a pale, flat grey, the colour of lampposts and gutters.” Thus does the humid summer pass, the children searching, the occasional targets of bullies, Anita piecing together Kyle’s secrets until she is sure she has found the key to his lasting friendship.
Anita yearns only for connection (“Just me, just me in the darkness”), her isolation terrible and painful. Shadowing the misfit boys, Anita carves a small niche for herself, a place to belong when all else is barren and forgiving.
Seven years later, relating the truth of that summer to a patient psychologist, Anita speaks about the quest for the sand caves, the loneliness and the violence that leaves a shocked city responding with platitudes and harsh judgments to cover the horrors of the unexpected, the innocence of childhood tainted with inexplicable evil.
With brutal honesty and spare language, Anita’s haunting voice recounts a summer riddled with conflicting emotions, isolation and the promise of release, the joy of a short, intense comradeship and a few moments of connection before the world closes in again. The repository of innocence and imagination, childhood can also be a dark place where the unspeakable festers, the deadly seeds of nightshade growing beside wild grasses, waiting to be plucked.