A beautiful, thoughtful look back at a life, beginning to end, a study on choices made and roads not taken – The Summer Of Her Life is a quiet, reflective thing that will stay with you long after turning that final page.
First of all, the artwork from Barbara Yelin, as you can clearly see from that cover, is quite beautifully done. It reminds me, at points, of Posy Simmonds, which is absolutely never a bad thing.
But it’s how Yelin uses her art here, shifting in style and colour between the times of the life in question, that is truly wonderful to see. And there are so many inventive shifts used in here, from those lush full pages to tight, constrained panel work that reinforces the idea of old age trapping you in your now, and then moments of sheer artistic invention, Yelin drawing us through the page, dispensing with panels, allowing the imagery to guide you, quite naturally, quite beautifully.
Case in point, this page back young Gerda’s career was just beginning, a lowly research assistant – the nature of the role being hammered home as Gerda and her professor take a journey down to the depths of the university to find her office…
Her work on the book is simply stunning. Each page, each panel, they’re glorious things of beauty. But it’s more than that – the art does so much to generate the mood and tone of Summer of Her Life. In fact, the artwork does so much of the heavy lifting in terms of effortless, beautiful storytelling that Yelin actually allows von Steinaecker to hold back on his words, letting us sink into the imagery on the page, getting all of the emotion, all of the sadness, all of the questioning that Summer of Her Life inspires.
Yelin’s art is responsible for so much of the intense emotional punch and the thought-provoking effect that I spoke of, it’s art that adds so much by letting the writer ease back and allowing the reader to simply luxuriate.
In Summer of Her Life, the life in question is Gerda Wendt’s, one of the elderly residents at a care home, where her day-to-day world is surrounded by other old folks, by nurses, and occasionally, fleeting visits from families never keen to stay too long – there’s always something about care homes that makes us feel uneasy, a glimpse into what awaits us all perhaps.
Anyway, Gerda is one of the lucky ones there, still possessing her faculties, still able, for now, to get around a little. But the signs are there early on, her regular physiotherapy sessions showing a decline in her movement, trapping her within her body, signalling the end.
However, her life her in the nursing home is but the now – inside her head, we’re able to see that Summer of the title, memories of her life lived. We look back on her childhood as a studious outcast, interested in numbers and the stars, then on to the beginnings of her career, a research assistant – the perfect way to retreat into those numbers and the stars, far safer than involving herself in the world and the people in it.
We shift to and fro, from the frail Gerda of the now to the Gerda of her memories. And it’s this looking back that brings forth so many questions, of both the reader and Gerda herself. She looks back on her life with what can only be seen as a sense of regret, her head full of memories and questioning just what might have been if things were different, if she’d have been different, or taken different paths.
I could say more of the plot, but there’s no need. It’s an end tale after all, that much is obvious from the moment you see the book. But it’s the manner of getting to the ending that’s so affecting, quietly emotional certainly but that’s deceptive. By the end of the book you’re so invested in Gerda that you feel the sadness of the inevitable so much harder.
The Summer of Her Life – Written by Thomas von Steinaecker, illustrated by Barbara Yelin, translated from German by John Reddick. Published by SelfMadeHero, 2020.
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