On a cold December evening, Autumn Spencer’s twin sister, Summer, walks to the roof of their shared Harlem brownstone and is never seen again. The door to the roof is locked, and the snow holds only one set of footprints. Faced with authorities indifferent to another missing Black woman, Autumn must pursue the search for her sister all on her own.
With her friends and neighbors, Autumn pretends to hold up through the crisis. But the loss becomes too great, the mystery too inexplicable, and Autumn starts to unravel, all the while becoming obsessed with the various murders of local women and the men who kill them, thinking their stories and society’s complacency toward them might shed light on what really happened to her sister.
In Speaking of Summer, critically acclaimed author Kalisha Buckhanon has created a fast-paced story of urban peril and victim invisibility, and the fight to discover the complicated truths at the heart of every family.
The cover of Speaking of Summer is what first caught my eye. It is just gorgeous with the flowers, the flawless deep skin, the vibrant colors. Fortunately, the content of the book is just as wonderful. We follow the journey of Autumn Spencer, whose twin sister Summer vanishes from the roof of their Harlem brownstone one night in December.
The story opens with a woman running, seemingly away from something or someone, and trying to escape. This scene serves as an overarching metaphor for the themes in the book.
One major theme is the media’s and authorities’ bias against missing Black women. In media coverage of missing persons, the majority of the cases presented are pretty (by Eurocentric standards), young white women. The cases of Black and indigenous missing women are often cast aside, left cold for decades, or “justified” by saying that they pursued a certain lifestyle or that “these things just happen” to POC below the poverty line.
Intersectionality plays a huge role in the systemic barriers Autumn faces. At one point, she wonders why, even though she appreciates the media attention drawn to Black men who are shot, people never talk about the hundreds of Black women who go missing every day, who slip through the cracks never to be seen or heard from again. She struggles with this discrimination, which rears its ugly head as she tries to draw law enforcement’s attention to Summer’s disappearance.
In the same vein, Kalisha Buckhanon explores is how society treats Black girls and Black women. There are strict boundaries that privileged people invisibly place on how Black girls and women are “meant to” act, and any deviation from these boundaries can mistakenly and stereotypically deem them as aggressive, bitchy, and even primitive – all awful, unnecessary, and and untrue judgments. Not only are women not afforded the same privileges as men in the legal system, but being a black woman increases the barriers to access exponentially.
Two quotes emphasize her thoughts:
“Women of color don’t matter in America unless we are rich or famous,”
“We riot when Black men are shot. What about those women?”
Another theme that spoke to me was one of compassion fatigue. Every day we are bombarded by one tragedy after another in the news, and as a Black woman, Autumn becomes exhausted from hearing of all the atrocities that happen to other Black women. Some, like Summer, become invisible and disappear, and some are portrayed in stereotypical manners that are completely unfair. Autumn is reminded that she needs to save some compassion for herself or she will have nothing to work on herself with.
As compassion fatigue compounds over days, weeks, and months, the body somatically learns to deal with the trauma that is inflicted. Even though the trauma is not necessarily the same as a single-incident trauma, the same biological process occurs and continues to wear down a person experiencing it. As the story goes on, Autumn becomes more and more exhausted.
Autumn works through her mental health challenges, including the grief of losing her sister. She begins to form a relationship with Summer’s boyfriend after bonding over their shared experience, and feels some regret and guilt. Eventually she learns that she is missing a piece of herself, and that the person who is left behind feels hollow and empty. The theme explored here is one of sisterhood, family bonds, and loyalty.
Speaking of Summer is one of my favorite books of 2019. While it is billed as somewhat of a thriller, I would say that it is more a contemplative narrative, or a slower-moving literary mystery, on what it means to be a Black woman in America, the criminal justice system, and mental health from an intersectional perspective.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Autumn goes in search of her missing sister Summer, who are both Black women, and her story covers mental health, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, grief, and trauma.
Genre: Adult literary mystery
Trigger/content warning: Missing people, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, trauma, grief, sex, abuse