Campaigning agendas do not usually make for great fiction, but Glasfurd is a strikingly sharp and subtle writer who finds beauty in the bleakest situations. She has the rare ability to conjure characters vividly in a few deft strokes and the gift, rarer still, of making us care deeply about them. Sarah, the farm labourer, is an especially engaging creation, furious, feisty and – a welcome glint of light in this dark book – often very funny. What might have been a stodgy slice of dour political polemic becomes an angry and tender interrogation of tangibly real lives.
If these narratives make the novel appear sombre, gloomy, then that is right to a degree. Yet it is also engrossing and easy to read. Though some of the characters are less interesting than others, and could perhaps have been cut without much damage to the overall experience, this is a rich, well-written, and entirely convincing work of historical fiction. Each story adds a dimension to the exploration of climate disaster across social class and geography.
In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded, spewing ash into the atmosphere. In Europe and America, the consequences were felt in disastrous changes in the weather. Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer (Two Roads £16.99) gives fictional form to the impact the eruption had on the lives of half a dozen contemporaries who would not even have known it had occurred, including the artist John Constable; an American preacher whose followers are ruined by crop failures; and a young farm labourer in the Fenlands who rebels against the injustices she faces. As the narrative jumps from story to story, its episodic structure becomes a limitation, but Glasfurd is a skilful writer and the book offers much to enjoy.
That is the real strength of this beautifully written, angry, unflinching and unforgettable novel. As Australia burns and glaciers melt away, these are sobering times in which to read, in detail, of the real and widespread suffering caused by a relatively small, sudden and temporary change in our climate, and of the tragedy of large numbers of starving people moving ever onwards, hoping for a chance of survival in an unfair world.