Fifteen-year-old Daniel’s trip to Florida to visit his absent father and the stepmother who ‘would rather be seen as a friend’ is cancelled owing to the latter’s advanced pregnancy, and as a result Daniel and his mum Sue face a long six weeks together over the school summer holidays. Days of the Bagnold Summer is a narrative structured by the weeks of that summer, one week per chapter. Each page features a subtitle or heading which provides a theme for the panels to follow, some themes more abstract than others, and the drawings are mostly of human figures executed in a pencil and ink wash. A narrator is ever-present in the often lengthy captions, providing the reader with an omniscient insight into the minds of mother and son as the long weeks pass slowly by.
The six-week block of time that is the Bagnold summer is framed by a forthcoming wedding and the need to buy Daniel some black shoes to look smart for it. The story opens with yet another failed shopping expedition and ends with Sue and Daniel walking into the distance, growing smaller and smaller inside successive frames as they make their way towards the wedding venue. Daniel wears black trainers instead of shoes, having finally worn Sue down.
As far as the actual story goes, that’s pretty much it. But any idea of ‘plot’ is, of course, beside the point. The focus of Winterhart’s narrative is the relationship between Daniel and Sue, the relentless tedium of the summer holidays when one is young, how dreadful it is to be a teenager and how difficult to be the single parent of a teenager. Winterhart’s achievement is to generate an equal amount of sympathy in the reader for both Sue and Daniel without tipping over into sentimentality; even the repulsive Ky, Daniel’s bullying best friend, is temporarily the object of the reader’s pity when he responds badly to Daniel’s having been accepted into a local band. Ky is momentarily wrong-footed and we get a glimpse of his fragility in his short-lived ‘muted reaction’.
Sue battles to understand her teenage son and tries to establish a connection with him by mentally recreating her own teenage years. She remembers those years as ‘an incredibly difficult and lonely time’. Daniel himself is a typical fifteen-year-old boy: he listens to heavy metal and fantasises about being the lead singer in a metal band; he enjoys drawing, but his taste is limited to pictures of axes, corpses and skulls. He is revolting in the way that teenage boys are: he is scruffy, he never washes his hair, he drinks barbecue sauce straight from the bottle when Sue isn’t around. He is also inconsiderate and lazy, but only in an average-teenager kind of way and the reader knows that Daniel will improve with age. And Daniel’s thoughtless selfishness is matched by Sue’s ability to come up with excruciatingly embarrassing comments (‘Aftershave…make you smell a bit sexy for the girls’). The relationship between mother and son at this most difficult time of Daniel’s development is characterised by a tension which increases until it explodes into the inevitable row – pretty normal teenager-parent stuff. The most touching moments in the narrative are those infrequent times when Sue and Daniel actively understand each other, such as when Sue describes Ky’s mother as being a bit ‘much’, to which Daniel responds positively, actually looking at his mother for once and agreeing with a little smile and a ‘Yeah’.
Parallels between mother and son are drawn throughout – a disinclination to wear anything other than a black hoodie or a shapeless sweater, a desire to be admired as a musician, an innate inability to join in, a bully for a best friend – and the reader is left with a keen awareness of inherited traits travelling down through generations. Family history is invoked through the use of photographs and other memorabilia. Absent fathers provide another point of connection between the various characters: Sue’s father was a GI who left his wife and daughter to return to the country of his birth; Daniel’s father left his mother to set up home with another in the US; Ky’s likeable but flaky mother, like Sue, is struggling to bring up a teenage son on her own.
A gentle humour pervades the book which relieves the sadness of it and Winterhart almost never allows the narrative to become mawkish: the only false note is the overly-melodramatic story of Sue’s short-lived relationship with a strange, troubled boy when she herself was Daniel’s age. This implausible episode in Sue’s past of armed robbery and subsequent suicide feels out of place in an otherwise humdrum event-free world. Nevertheless, I like this book very much. And with every re-reading, it never fails to make me extremely glad that my teenage years are now a long, long way behind me.