Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna


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!

10 thoughts on “‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna”

  1. This does indeed sound like a great read. I wouldn’t have come across the author if not for your review Kim so thanks very much.
    I am going to say something which Picador might take offense at, am hoping they don’t, and say that as a publishing house they tend to stop prints really early on if its not instantly very/fairly successful.


  2. Ooh, that does sounds good but sad that it’s out of print. May have to try my local library or keep an eye out at secondhand bookstores.


  3. Interesting point about Picador; I’d not clocked that. It’s just a shame more people don’t know about MacKenna — both of the two books of his I’ve read have been very, very good.


  4. Thanks for your comment, Sam. I hope you find a copy… god knows whether MacKenna is stocked in libraries, but you should be able to pick up a cheap second hand copy online easily enough.


  5. I’m hoping to read his other novels at some point. He was an accidental discovery — and left a nice comment under my review of ‘The Space Between Us’ which made me more inclined to explore his back catalogue. Other authors, take note! 😉


  6. As a fan of McGahern, this sounds just up my street. The slow pace is often very effective in building a powerful story.
    You did well to buy it for a few pence – Amazon MP is often a very useful resource isn’t it. Hopefully your wish for a republication of the authors work will be granted before too long


  7. Thanks for this post, have read his last three book and am suprized this is out of print.
    It’s in my local library in Athy, look forward to reading it after your review. He’s an excellant writer, and a wonderful creative writing facilitator; he teaches a Creative Writing For Publication course through Maynooth Nui, available in Kilkenny as well, i’ve just finished the course and would recommend it to anyone serious about improving their writing.


  8. Funnily enough, the narrative is quite fast in this book. I’m not sure how he did it, actually, because there is a focus on the slower pace of rural life, so it could have easily got bogged down in unnecessary (and dull) detail — but it doesn’t. I actually could not put this book down and read it in one sitting!


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