Published by HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: May 24th 2016
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Zinaida, Katya, and Ana have nothing in common, especially given that Zinaida lived in the small town of Sumy in the Ukraine in the 1800s and Katya and Ana are modern women. But in Alison Anderson’s debut novel, The Summer Guest, their lives intersect as Katya discovers Zinaida’s diary and hires Ana to translate it into English. For all three women this is their chance to emerge from from the blankness of their lives and step into history, if not on their own accomplishments, then on that of Zinaida’s friend, Anton Chekhov, who occupies a major portion of her diary in the final summers of her life.
An unusual woman for her times, Zina has a medical degree and had been working as a doctor in her community until shortly before her thirtieth birthday she began to suffer seizures and to lose her sight. She goes to live at her family’s dacha in Luka, where to help supplement their finances, her mother rents out the guesthouse to Chekhov’s family. Soon, her conversations with Chekhov are the cornerstone of her life and she records them in books her brother creates with paper specially lined so she can feel her way to try and write.
Juxtaposed against the slow quiet of the summers in Luka are the messier contemporary lives of Katya and Ana. Katya is co-founder of a publishing firm that is on the edge of bankruptcy when Zina’s diary is discovered. She hopes that with Ana’s help it can save their firm, because the diary speaks frequently of Chekhov’s work on a novel—something that, to-date, has not been known to exist. For Ana, this is the opportunity to find herself again after her twenty-year marriage collapsed. As she translates the diary she brings Zina’s life to light in the smallest details—including the fact that Zina’s greatest fear and burden, her blindness, may be the very thing that brings her closer to Chekhov.
I believe what he might have said, had he been bolder, was that in my unseeing presence, he could be another, perhaps truer self; without my gaze, he was free in a way that no sighted presence could ever allow. That is the harsh, uncomfortable truth about sight that I have discovered only since I’ve lost it: Others may use one’s blindness to find a place of comfort.
The Summer Guest is an elegant novel that plays with time. Katya and Ana are looking to the past for their future while for Zina there is no future. Much rides on her journal and the questions it contains, but Anderson goes beyond this mystery, to the ones contained in the lives of Zina, Katya and Ana, where the truth is even harder to find.