Review originally published in the Hipster Book Club, August 2008
In Camilla Way's debut novel, a trio of teenage social misfits spends a sweltering British summer exploring the wharf area of southeast London. The Dead of Summer is narrated by thirteen-year-old Anita, a motherless child who is the sole witness and survivor to a bloody crime at the end of the summer. As the book opens, the reader is told, "By the end of that summer three of us were dead. But you already knew that. Tell me, does your pulse quicken when you see the headlines?"
Anita Naidu is the daughter of a Pakistani father and a British mother. After her mum passes away, her father turns to endless alcohol-fueled hours in front of the television, her older sisters busy themselves dressing up and going out to meet men, and her older brother aligns himself with criminal elements that bring in easy cash and flashy material possessions. Anita, bullied as a "skint Paki" at school, spends solitary hours missing her mother and suffering isolation from her extended family, who never supported the mixed marriage.
Searching for her place in the world while fighting her own psychological pain, Anita falls in step with two other loners at school: the overweight, socially awkward Denis and the skinny, violent Kyle. Kyle is the de facto group leader, but he does not actively seek a leadership role. Rather, as the most daring, reckless member of the group, he is always concocting new spur-of-the-moment adventures as his friends scramble to catch up. Kyle dreams of finding an entrance to Greenwich's abandoned salt mines and living in an alternate cave world, away from the painful existence of life in London's slums. In his more deviant moments, Kyle's adventures graduate from youthful exploration fantasies to cruel sadism.
Way's prose is taut and intimate. The brutal reality of life near the wharf is evident at every turn. Bums are tormented, bullies viciously stalk the misfits, and the children play in abandoned junk yards and polluted rivers. The world of these students is devoid of parents, money, and opportunity. Anita discovers that Kyle lost his sister under mysterious circumstances a year ago, so she spends the summer alternately trying to impress her friend with her cave-sleuthing skills and investigating his background. From the hushed discussions of adults, it is apparent that Kyle's sister was abducted, but her body was never found.
Anita is both enamored of Kyle and scared by him. She suspects there is more to the story of his sister's abduction, especially after finding mementos of the little girl's existence in her friend's possession. Both Anita and the reader are desperately curious to learn more about this sullen, volatile boy who shuns nearly all human contact. Kyle's gregarious grandfather is the only kindly adult Anita's life, yet his own grandson recoils at spending time around him. Kyle's mother is a timid ghost of a woman who ventures out to make child-like observations before returning to seclusion on upper floor of her home.
As this psychological thriller unfolds, Anita uncovers several secrets in Kyle's family history. She also reveals her own secrets which were buried when her mother died. Author Camilla Way ventures inside the mind of teenage criminals with this latest literary fiction offering. The plot develops naturally and quickly; the author does not waste words dragging out her twists and turns. The reader is told to expect a bloody, headline-grabbing crime from the novel's opening, but Camilla Way manages to evoke a truly frightening picture of the criminal psyche in her teenaged characters.