Book Group Discussion: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

Last month’s book of the month was The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon, an atmospheric coming of age story, with an ending that left many readers with pressing questions – so, Sarah joined us online to answer some of them…

On why the book’s set in 1983… (asked Fran Roberts)

Simple maths. At the start, I wanted to make a connection to present day Helen being the age of her dad when he disappeared. My mum’s father died when he was 40, and passing that age herself was a deeply emotional moment. I’m not sure that a lot of that has explicitly remained, but it was saying, Mick would be this age then, so Helen would need to be this age then. If you see what I mean. I also seem to remember that originally the present day was set at an earlier point, and my editor suggested I make it actually present. Which, of course, is now already out of date!

On Helen and Victoria’s reading list… (asked Zarina de Ruiter)

The book thing came up from an old joke I had with a teenage friend (who I’ve lost touch with…) about Ulysses being impossible to read unless you were travelling with no access to anything else. I then put in the sort of books that I’ve heard people say they had trouble finishing, and also looked up lists online. Ooh, confession time! I haven’t read Moby Dick or The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And I haven’t reread W&P since I was a teenager. But I did flick through a lot, and listened to the audio adaptation Radio 4 put on on New Year’s Day…I haven’t read Ulysses yet…

Bonjour Tristesse was a specific choice, but right now I can’t remember what prompted it! There’s the sense of never finishing, I think, which has a resonance with Helen’s avoidance of the end of the summer…

On choosing who to … (asked Jo Lenaghan)

I think it started as first person, moved to third and then developed onto the split. The idea behind it was that, as a child (and Helen is still very much a child) there is a difficulty in having first person, because the young person has a restricted view of life, and less ability to analyse. I’m having my cake and eating it: the adult Helen can reflect, and I can present happenings through Helen’s younger eyes without always having to keep it to what she knows.

On Helen and Victoria’s friendship… (asked Caroline Ambrose)

There’s an element of classic children’s stories, where the adventures can happen because the parents are absent. Think of the Famous Five, and how the parents are always going off on holiday and leaving them behind. Victoria suffers benign neglect, but is of the nature to be tough and independent because of it. Helen, though, is crushed by the overpowering nature of her mum, even when she’s not there. And the tiny shoots of growth are scorched (sorry, but it’s an apt analogy!)

Sarah JasmonOn her characters… (asked Josie Barton)

The whole cast really came alive for me. In fact, as I came towards the end, they tended to come to life like a kind of show behind my eyelids as I was going to sleep at night! It was fascinating to watch them develop as proper rounded characters, almost by themselves, and that very much happened alongside the writing process. I’ve been a lot more organised with my planning for the next book, so it will be interesting to see how the characters pan out, see if it will be very different to write them.

On whose secret backfired the most… (asked Christine Cox)

Hmm, having to think quite hard about this one! I think it was Helen’s parents, especially her mum. She keeps a lot back from Helen in an effort to protect her (and because she’s quite a controlling person), but that takes away Helen’s choice to grow. Something readers often say is that they don’t understand why Helen has never gone to find answers before. I feel that this is the moment where they became too complex and scary for her to acknowledge, and then she found it hard to approach them again.

On the intentions behind that ending… (asked Fran Roberts)

I’m hoping for a measure of catharsis…! The ending became darker through the rewrites, and my editor really encouraged me to go deep with it. I think we all had some wobbles about whether we shouldn’t just brighten up, but I’m glad we held onto it. I get a bit frustrated by books that lead to a dark place and then have a happy bit grafted on. I was aiming for a moment of light, where Helen could begin again.

On what she might go back and tell her teenage self about her future… (asked Linda Hill)

Be brave and stand up for yourself. And don’t be scared of hard answers and trouble: it’s transient and facing up to things is always the best way.

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon (@sarahontheboat) is published by Transworld and is out now. 

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