With a title like The Girls of Summer, you might find yourself picking up Katie Bishop’s debut novel with expectations of a typical sun-drenched summer read. But whilst this book partly takes place on a secluded, sun-trapped Greek island, where the days are lazy, the nights long, the drinks flow endlessly, and the rest of the world feels a million miles away, there’s a darker side to the story that casts a sharp spotlight on the complicated nature of power, consent and recollection.
Rachel was just seventeen when she met Alistair. He was in his thirties. She was spending the summer before her A-Levels island hopping with her best friend, and he was working for a powerful billionaire on an idyllic Greek island. She was young, trusting and impressionable, and he made her feel special, more mature than her years. Rachel fell in love with Alistair against a seemingly perfect summer backdrop, and sixteen years later – even though she’s married to another man – she still thinks of her first love. But Rachel’s memories of that summer are clouded by her lingering feelings for a man she didn’t ever really know.
In the present, Rachel is unhappy in her marriage and still reminiscing over the summer she stepped into womanhood. The summer that changed the course of her life forever. When an unexpected encounter reconnects her with someone from her past, Rachel is forced to re-examine her innocently one-sided recollection of her time on the island and the relationship she had with Alistair. And when he returns, Rachel finds herself pulled back into Alistair’s orbit, bringing the past – with all its hazy, uncomfortable realities – crashing into the present.
…now I find a restless unease gathering in the pit of my stomach. Now I go over what Alistair said to me. What he was asking me to do. It used to feel like everything he did was to ensure that we could be together. Now, I’m not quite so sure.”
The Girls of Summer starts off innocently enough, with two teenage girls enjoying the sun, sea and freedom of their first overseas holiday without parents. Yet it’s not long before an insidious undertone begins to permeate the story. Alternating between ‘then’ and ‘now’, the past chapters explore how Rachel and Alistair met, how she was instantly besotted with him, and how he drew her into a world of powerful men and exploited girls. Whilst Rachel doesn’t see Alistair’s attention as dangerous or predatory, as a woman reading this book, the warning signs are painfully glaring. You want to scream at her. Tell her to run as quickly and as far away as she can get. But of course she doesn’t.
As the past chapters reveal what happened that summer through Rachel’s viewpoint, the chapters set in the present show the lasting fallout of a tragedy that sent everyone running from the island, including Rachel herself. She might have moved on with her life, getting married and putting down roots, but she’s still very much stuck in the past. Over a decade later, Alistair maintains his hold on her, but their reunion allows her to peel back the layers of her memories; memories that when viewed through the lens of adulthood, don’t feel quite so golden.
We’re not short on novels exploring the complexities of consent, power and the exploitation of both girls and women. But The Girls of Summer feels particularly pertinent to our times. So much of this story revolves around perspective. The fact that in years gone by, before the #MeToo movement, the male-dominated behaviour explored in this book was so often excused, explained away or simply accepted as part of life. Something women had to endure and ignore. By forcing Rachel to examine her own perspective, Bishop centres the story on reframing the narratives that make up who we are and the paths we take into adulthood. Rachel might be the narrator, but she’s telling the collective stories of women the world over.
It’s impossible to read The Girls of Summer without feeling a disquieting sense of familiarity with the story playing out. It captures the rose-tinted naivety of youth, and how that naivety – and the easy trust that comes with it – can be exploited. Bishop’s perceptive debut has a sharp understanding of how things were vs. how things are now, and it’s a relief to read it with the knowledge that times have changed – and continue to change for the better. The actual story might be a fiction but there are so many truths threaded through the pages, and it makes for a powerful, compelling and suspenseful read.
The Girls on Summer is published by Bantam Press on 25 May 2023