Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Karen Swan has become a prolific writer since her early years in fashion journalism. Each year she produces two books, one for the summer period in the northern hemisphere and the other in time for Christmas. With over twenty books to her credit, she has developed an extensive following. Her latest book, The Last Summer, is the first in her five book historical series called The Wild Isle, based upon the dramatic evacuation of Scottish island St Kilda in the summer of 1930.
This wild and dramatic setting off the western coast of Scotland has much to add to the storyline in this book. It is the isolation and weather that forges the personalities of its inhabitants. Effie Gillies is eighteen and lives with her father in close proximity to the rest of the thirty-six people who share this island. With the death of her brother and her father’s physical ineptness, it falls on her to take on the role of provider for her family. To do this, she has to prove that she can do most of the work of the other male inhabitants. This often creates tension in a society that rests on traditional ways and earns her the label of ‘wild thing’ (41). She feels that she can never replace her brother in her father’s mind and that she is ‘an embarrassment and a disgrace’ (74) within the community.
The author provides the reader with graphic details of life on this isolated place and activities unfamiliar to most readers but necessary to sustain life for its inhabitants – sheep plucking, cragging, fowling for fulmars and other birds, snaring puffins. The inhabitants still have to pay rents and provide products for the mainland. This is a place where ‘tragedy is a part of life’ (47) but where its beauty ‘outweighs the problems’ (45). To help the reader, a glossary of island vocabulary and a map of the area has been added. This was beneficial.
Into this world comes a yacht carrying a father and son who wish to study the birdlife. Effie is tasked with showing them around and the attraction between her and the son soon becomes apparent. But they are from worlds apart. He is heir to the Earl of Dumfries, and she runs around barefooted in her brother’s clothes.
Life changes forever three months later when all the residents of the island are relocated to the mainland. The island residents are no longer together and Effie after a disastrous beginning is offered a job by the very man who had come to the island previously. It is here that the reader is made well aware of British society in the 1900s and where Effie finds herself belonging to neither upstairs or downstairs in the home of her employer and her first love interest. It was wonderful to read about Effie’s experiences in this situation and her reaction to seeing herself in a mirror for the first time.
The book is in two parts. Life on the island then on the mainland. The pace of the storyline in the first is slow as the reader becomes engrossed in the pace of island life. This changes in the second half of the book where some people have too much time on their hands, are very self-centred and become quite cruel towards others especially those they believe are of a lower social standing.
Karen Swan has brought to life the lives of her characters, their strength and their personalities. I was drawn to Effie, her bravery and determination and her loyalty but was somewhat disappointed in her love interest who at times seemed to lack backbone. All the other key players seemed genuine even those with darker motives. This is an interesting tale incorporating family, friendship, community, mystery, social division, drama, and love. Was what happened on the island a case of what we would call today social grooming? What really happened to the perpetrator? Who knew about this?
Unfortunately, these questions were not answered in this book. Though disappointing, it ensures the reader will look for the books to come in this series. Overall, this was a very interesting read.
The Last Summer
by Karen Swan