Glasfurd’s novel traces six unconnected stories through this turbulent time. Some are drawn from the historical record: Mary Shelley’s storm-lashed summer in Switzerland notoriously fed the gothic imaginings that led to Frankenstein, while a big painting commission finally gave the artist John Constable the financial security to marry. Others are more loosely adapted or invented: a ship’s doctor dispatched to Tambora, a soldier returning from war to an England racked by unemployment and political unrest, a rebellious Suffolk farm labourer resisting starvation wages, a Wesleyan preacher facing famine in Vermont.
The eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora, in present-day Indonesia, remains the most violent volcanic explosion in recorded history. It was also the most deadly, killing an estimated 90,000 people across the region, most by starvation. Over the year that followed its effects would be felt across the globe. Floods engulfed Europe; north-eastern America suffered droughts and wildfires. Snow fell in August. As harvests failed, bringing hunger and disease, 1816 became known as the “year without summer”.
Suffering served six ways: If that sounds grim, well, frequently it is. Glasfurd does not flinch from the anguish faced by many in the period. In her afterword she states unequivocally that it is not the purpose of her novel to offer comfort or hope. Rather, she seeks to make us see and compel acknowledgement of the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change and to “provide, above all, urgent impetus for us to act”.
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.
The novel’s episodic structure presents challenges. Some stories are more satisfying than others, and the emotional impact of the whole is compromised as it works towards six unrelated and mostly unhappy endings. But it is impossible to read The Year Without Summer and not to be deeply troubled by the scale both of the climate disruption caused by the Tambora catastrophe and the human suffering that followed. Glasfurd’s hard-hitting admonition deserves to find its mark.