In Cole Lavalais’s captivating debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, the protagonist compels her lover to reveal his scar, fraternity letters freshly branded on his skin. In turn, she bares her own, a scabrous keloid scar, the result of a regrettable decision.
These differences are symbolic: his mark is the result of a celebrated tradition and an indication of belonging, and hers, a painful reminder of her seeming instability and disconnection from her mother, her only family.
Her yearning to belong to a legacy, one that is at least definitive, is what drives this moody yet alluring work. The “her” in this story is Vi Moon, a young woman from Chicago just released from a mental health center, who heads south to attend a historically black college in northern Florida.
Upon landing, her discomfort is palpable and immediate, even as she contemplates the curve of this new terrain.
The landscape sped by like one of those low budget movies where the green screen appeared too obvious because the actor in the forefront didn’t quite fit into the simulated landscape.
Yes, Vi is this painfully awkward actor. Lavalais, a graduate of Florida A&M University (like myself) and Chicago State University, is unflinchingly honest in her depiction of this world, where its inhabitants can be elitist, intolerant and excessively reverent of tradition – to the point of stifling their own expression.
Yet, the major characters that populate Summer of the Cicadas all struggle with alienation, especially her “legacy” lover Perry, who happens to be the only son of an elite Southern black family. These people all, in their own way, either serve to empower or disempower Vi.
Sharply drawn, these characters leave distinct impressions upon the reader, from Vi’s erudite yet unstable library supervisor Dr. Locke to her false-fronting, party-girl roommate Danielle.
Most of all though, we have Vi, whose tortuous journey to wholeness is sobering. In fact, her most fully rendered memory, the catalyst for her journey in the first place, is tied to the song of that mythical insect that arrives every 17 years and represents rebirth and immortality in Chinese culture, the cicada.
In her quest for definition, Moon tragically or hilariously—depending on your perspective—attempts to fabricate a lineage by cribbing books from the library, books by authors who share her last name.
Still, Vi, who is prone to hallucinations, remains intellectual, intuitive and self-aware.
In the hands of a less-skillful writer, characters like Vi would be relegated to caricature, broadly drawn to the point of being cartoonish and unnatural. The same could be said for her “bestie” Ronnie, whose declaration of gayness seems revolutionary in a culture rife with hyper-masculinity. Even then, Ronnie emerges from these pages as brave, generous and admirable.
He also acts as Vi’s revealer and truth-teller.
In a pivotal scene, Ronnie invites Vi to his family’s cemetery in a small town thirty miles from school. Here she reiterates her shortcoming: being the “byproduct” of a vague memory as blurred and fragmented as her father’s likeness. Ronnie pulls her down next to him to “pray” in front of his grandmother’s headstone.
“…What good are ancestors if you can’t ask them for something?”
“But these are your ancestors not mine. I don’t have people.”
Moments later Ronnie tells her: “Anybody can be your people. All you need is two willing souls.”
Just as every character struggles with feelings of alienation, they too have to contend with a fragmented existence, either due to family or their own lack of emotional well-being.
In Summer of the Cicadas, Lavalais lays bare the primordial need for all of us to fully recognize our legacies. Thanks to evocative prose, colorful characters and a young woman’s earnest desire, readers will feel compelled to discover whether Vi’s yearning, writ large by the “question mark” scar on her chest, will meet fulfillment.
Fiction – Literary
Summer of the Cicadas by Cole Lavalais
Published May 6, 2016