The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

All in it together…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted. This far away, almost unreported event would have wide-reaching consequences as unusually bad weather conditions raised food prices and created famine around the world. Through the stories of six people in different spheres of life, Glasfurd shows some of the impact of the volcano and, without beating the drum too loudly, hints at what we might expect in a future of uncontrolled climate change.

The six main characters in the book are unconnected to each other except by the impact of the volcano, so that in a sense it works like a collection of short stories, although the format means that we get a little of one story followed by a little of another, and so on. This can make it seem a bit fragmentary at first, and not completely balanced since some of the stories are stronger than others. But together they give a good picture of how life was affected in different places and by different sections of society at the same moment in time, and so once I got used to the format, I felt it worked well.

Henry is the surgeon aboard the British ship Benares, sent to Sumbawa Island to investigate reports of loud explosions there. It is through his letters home that we are told about the immediate devastation of the volcano on the local population, and of the dire failure of the British rulers to provide adequate aid to the surviving islanders, whose entire crops were destroyed and water sources polluted. Some of the descriptions have all the imagery of horror stories, made worse by knowing that they are true.

Glasfurd then swings away from Indonesia to our more familiar world some months later, once the atmospheric effects of the volcano had begun to seriously affect weather patterns around the world. We meet John Constable, trying to make his way as a painter and gain entry to the prestigious Royal Academy; and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, travelling with her lover Percy Shelley and her young son on the fateful trip during which she would find the inspiration to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. But Glasfurd shows us the lives of commoners too – Sarah, a peasant girl doing jobbing work on farms in the Fens at at time of famine and increased mechanisation, and caught up in the protests and riots arising out of the desperation of the rural poor; Hope Peter, a soldier returned from the Napoleonic Wars to a land not in any way fit for heroes, desperately seeking some means of earning a living in a country that showed him no welcome home; and across the Atlantic we meet Charles, a preacher in Vermont, caught up in the lives of the farming community there as crops fail and the already hard life becomes even harder.

Weymouth Bay 1816
John Constable found new inspiration in the stormy skies of the year.

While I found all of the stories had enough interest in them to hold my attention, the two that stood out most for me were Mary Shelley’s and the young farm worker Sarah’s. Mary’s story centres on the famous challenge among the group of friends that included Byron and John Polidori to each write a story – a challenge that only Polidori and Mary met, with Polidori’s The Vampyre perhaps owing its place in history mostly to its connection to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But this is not a cosily described fun vacation – Glasfurd shows the hardness of Mary’s life, partly because of the harsh weather of the year, but also because of the grief she still feels over the loss of her first child and the uncertainty of her unconventional status as an unmarried woman living openly with her lover. Byron doesn’t come out of it well, and nor does Shelley really – although they both encourage Mary to join in with the challenge by writing her own story, they don’t treat her seriously as an equal. Of course, since her legacy turned out to be vastly superior and more influential than either of theirs, I guess they were right, but not quite in the way they thought… 😉

Guinevere Glasfurd

Young Sarah I loved – she stole my heart completely with her frank and funny outlook on her hand-to-mouth existence and her irreverence and lack of respect for the farmers, ministers and general do-gooders who felt that the poor should be grateful for a penny of pay and a bowl of thin soup after twelve or fourteen hours of physical labour. Her section is given in the first person, and her voice reminded me a lot of the wonderful Bessy in The Observations, another feisty young girl uncowed by the circumstances of her life. As the younger farm workers gradually band together to demand better pay and conditions, I was cheering Sarah on, but with a sense of dread since this was a period in which the authorities showed no mercy to challenges from those they saw as potential revolutionaries.

The book has had a rather mixed reaction because of the way the stories are rotated without ever becoming linked. It worked for me, perhaps because earlier reviews meant I knew what to expect going in. While my enjoyment of the various strands varied, I found it a great way to give a panoramic view of the year, from rich to poor, artist to labourer, and of how all of society was affected in different ways by the climatic effects of the volcano. One I happily recommend.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, John Murray Press via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

42 thoughts on “The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

    • Yes, I think knowing that in advance really helps, because otherwise I suspect I’d have spent the whole book waiting for them to come together and then been infuriated when they didn’t. I hope you enjoy it!

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  1. The real events are fascinating but to add John Constable’s art and the influence of the climate on Mary Shelley and her peers to the story is even more interesting. I don’t think I’d mind that the character’s stories are so loosely linked.

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    • I thought the Mary Shelley story was very well done and the Constable section had me googling his art and seeing for myself how it changed at that period. I think it might have bothered me that the stories didn’t connect if I hadn’t known in advance, but because I did, it didn’t bother me.

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  2. I’ve been wondering about reading this. I think the effects of the eruption tend to be overlooked: the economic and social problems of the second half of the 1810s are usually attributed to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so this does merit more attention.

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    • I thought it was an interesting approach and she didn’t overplay her hand, making it clear that there were other factors involved in the unrest but that the famine caused by the weird weather played a role. I liked that she included a Napoleonic soldier, letting her show that aspect too, but I think the farm labourers’ story in particular gave a different angle of insight to the riots of that period.

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  3. What an interesting way to tell the story of that eruption, FictionFan. And using realistic individuals to tell the story just makes it seem all the more accessible. I’ll have to keep in mind that the different stories aren’t tied together. But even so, this sounds like an excellent read, and not too ‘preachy,’ which just makes it all the more appealing.

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    • Yes, I thought the way she did it was very good, especially the mix of real and fictional characters. I was pleased she took us over to America too, to make it clear it wasn’t just a local event, though I kinda wished she’d shown how the rest of the world was affected too – but I suppose there’s only so much you can do in one novel!

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  4. This sounds like an interesting read; however, I’m puzzled why the author chose to tell the individual stories in such a disjointed way. I guess I’d have preferred a chapter on one, followed by a chapter on another, or something to that effect. I can see where you’d need to know something like that before wading in; otherwise, it might come across as a jumbled mess!

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    • I don’t know why she decided to do it that way. It worked for me because I knew in advance but if I hadn’t I think I’d have been waiting all the way through for the stories to come together. But each strand was interesting in its own right, so I didn’t mind jumping among them.

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  5. This sounds like exactly my type of book!! Unfortunately, my only options are a pricy hardcover and an even pricier paperback. So…. it will have to wait. Good thing I’m not hurting for reading material! 😆

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  6. Thanks to your warning about the somewhat loose structure, I don’t think it would bother me especially, as I quite like that kind of thing when I’m in the mood. You’ve also reminded me I need to read the Observations sometime, as I remember liking the idea of it when I read your review.

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    • Yes, definitely knowing about the structure in advance helped me – otherwise I’d have been waiting all the time to see how she would bring the various stories together. But this way was actually more realistic – different people, different circumstances, different stories. The Observations was great and I’m sure I saw a review from someone praising the audiobook version quite recently.

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    • I think the ship’s surgeon strand is also based on a real person, but the other three are fictional. I think she said that Sarah, the farm labourer, had the same name as a woman listed as having been involved in the riots of the time, but nothing was known about her except her name. It’s actually a few months since I read it, so my memories are already vague!

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  7. I’m glad you enjoyed this! I did like it, especially Sarah’s story, but I’m one of those people who had a problem with the structure. I definitely think it would have helped if I’d known there were six separate stories as I kept waiting for them to come together and they never did.

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    • Yes, your review actually helped me to enjoy it because I knew what to expect going in. Otherwise I’m sure I’d also have spent the whole book waiting for the stories to connect and would have felt frustrated when they didn’t.

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    • I’m always wary of imagined biographies too, but I felt she kept both Constable and Mary Shelley well within the bounds of possibility – she’d clearly researched the facts, so only the thoughts are imaginary. I hope you enjoy it! 😀

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  8. The title somewhat depressed me when I first came across it and I never bothered to learn what the book is actually about. (Feeling a strong need for feelgood books at the moment, can’t think why.) But your review convinces me this probably right up my street. I happen to like imagined biographies if they’re well done, and have a keen interest in Mary Shelley. I’m intrigued by 6 stories which don’t connect – trying to envisage how that works when they’re all mixed together. Think I’d be fine with that until the end. So we get six separate endings really? 🤔

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    • I enjoyed them all, although some stood out more than others. But they do work together to give a more all-round picture of the year than just concentrating on one or two people would have done, I think.

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  9. I love the sound of this book! Who knew volcano eruptions could have such devastating, long lasting affects on the climate? I had no idea. I kind of like when the stories don’t link b/c it comes across as more realistic, ya know?

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  10. I’ve just added this book to my list. It sounds interesting in a number of ways for me. I have been aware of the catastrophic effect volcanic eruptions can have globally, as well as locally (we experienced deaths and injuries last year when the White Island volcano erupted unexpectedly) and I’d like to think more about these effects. I like the linked stories format, and Sarah does sound enticing, as I loved Bessie in The Observations.

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    • Yes, we heard about the White Island volcano – it must be the most terrifying thing to be caught up in an eruption. I enjoyed the way Glasfurd showed all different aspects, from those directly affected like the farm labourers, to the impact on Constable’s art, which could be seen as a positive coming out of the disaster. I also liked the way she showed that news back then was so slow and distant events were barely covered, so that no one was really aware that all the storms and crop failures were a result of the volcano. I think you’ll enjoy it… 😀

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