NPR Review: 'The Summer Of Ellen,' By Agnete FriisAgnete Friis' new novel takes place in flashbacks, jumping between the present and a rural Danish farm during the summer of 1978 — a seemingly idyllic time, until two people go missing.
It's a curious process, looking back at marketing trends of yore. Take the ubiquity of the stepback covers in the romance section during the 1980s: It seemed that every handsome Scottish warrior squeezing a buxom lass came with one of those peek-a-boo cutouts.
A decade earlier, my mother's novels frequently bore the tagline "a novel of suspense!" I'm sure books nowadays still say the same thing sometimes, but back then the phrase seemed to be stamped on covers everywhere.
There's a reason why I'm bringing the 1970s and the novel of suspense into this discussion — and it's because both feature prominently in The Summer of Ellen by Agnete Friis, translated by Sinead Quirke Kongerskov.
The Summer of Ellen is definitely "a novel of suspense!" Calling it a thriller would invoke stakes that are too high, and noir doesn't seem to quite belong with the sunny, rural atmosphere. Novel of suspense, then, fits perfectly. Lyrical would also work quite well.
Friis' novel takes place via flashbacks, moving back and forth between the summer of 1978 and the present. She describes Denmark in the 1970s with the keen eye of a miniaturist, taking in every little detail until you feel you are breathing the fresh country air and touching the blades of grass. It's a beautiful, lovely landscape — and yet, there is an element of unease creeping through the pages as Jacob, a teenager working on a farm for the summer, meets the beautiful, older Ellen. She's a hippie 20-something from the nearby commune who fills Jacob's head with impulses which swing from frenzied carnality to sweet romance. Left at that, this could be a coming-of-age tale. But a girl from a nearby farm has gone missing, and in the present, a middle-aged Jacob heads back to the farm to find out whatever happened to Ellen, who also seems to have disappeared after that summer.
Jacob's present-day investigation into Ellen's location is a necessary component to the narration, but the segments set in the past are much more compelling and pop off the page like bright sparks. It's almost disappointing when we must return to Jacob's current woes. I assume that's the point of the tale, to drive through how real, how meaningful, 1978 is compared to the dreary existence of the now. Young Jacob is flawed, but also innocent, and his yearning is the yearning of a boy. Older Jacob is a much harder character to like.
This is a beautifully written book, descriptive, atmospheric and carefully woven. The conclusion seems a tad rushed, but it's hard to find any fault with it otherwise. Despite the wide vistas of fields and countryside, Friis manages to create a feeling of claustrophobia and an impending sense of doom. Two striking scenes, one during the culling of chickens, are especially vivid and worth the cover price alone.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a thriller is a whodunit, an intellectual process, but suspense is an emotional one. Friis knows this — and slowly, slowly takes us by the hand and draws us into a seductive, and dangerous, summer.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is The Beautiful Ones. She tweets at @silviamg.