Fiction – paperback; Picador; 267 pages; 1999.
I read John MacKenna’s The Space Between Us, a novel bought on a whim when perusing the New Island Books website, late last year. I enjoyed it so much I decided to seek out more of his work, only to find his three previous novels are now out of print. And so thanks to Amazon marketplace I managed to secure a copy of The Last Fine Summer, first published in 1997, for the princely sum of a few pence.
The Last Fine Summer is set in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s. It is narrated by Tim, a 29-year-old school teacher, who is grieving over the loss of his much younger lover, Jean, whom he addresses directly in a series of letters. This narrative is undercut with the story of Tim’s previous love affair with his best friend, Kevin, ten years earlier.
From the very first page we are told that both Jean and Kevin are dead, but we do not know the circumstances of their death, only that they died before their time. This is a superb plot device, because the reader knows what’s coming, but isn’t exactly sure when it will arrive.
MacKenna builds on this momentum by adding forbidden love into the mix: Jean is a student at Tim’s school; Kevin is gay. And if that wasn’t enough, mid-way through the affair with Kevin, Tim, who is confused about his own sexuality, fixes his sights on Kevin’s older sister, Hannah, so that a tricky and delicate ménage à trois results.
All this probably sounds sordid and trashy, but in MacKenna’s restrained, almost limpid, writing style, it comes across as beautiful and tragic. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin. And while The Last Fine Summer may revolve around sexual love, there’s something deeper at its core: the relationship between fathers and sons.
Both Tim and Kevin are motherless from a young age. But where Tim forges a strong relationship with his quietly spoken dad, Kevin rails against his father, a farmer who is way too loose and heavy with his fists. It is this abuse which inspires Kevin to study hard so that he can escape the farm and go to college.
The Last Fine Summer is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is McGahern-like in its depiction of the passing seasons, of rural life, close-knit communities and the ways in which education can help you rise above your circumstances. I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot understand why it is no longer in print. The bring-back-John-MacKenna’s-novels-into-print campaign starts here!