With her latest YA contemporary novel, The Melancholy of Summer, Louisa Onomé continues her streak of books that should be made immediately into teen movies. The parents of Nigerian Canadian Summer Uzoma, 17, have disappeared, forcing her to find safe haven on other people’s couches. But when York University, the school she applied to, uncovers her vagabond lifestyle, she’s placed with her cousin, half-Japanese singer Olu Arai (known to her fans as “Kari”) who’s hiding secrets of her own. Summer’s life has been turned upside down and she must find the strength to face her trauma while discovering who she wants to be on her own terms.
It’s no accident that The Melancholy of Summer is named after the song, “Natsu no Yuu-utsu” by Japanese rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel. Onomé’s book is an ode to the Japanese manga slice-of-life genre, giving readers a relatable, character-focused story with a regular, everyday girl as the protagonist. Though Summer’s problems stem from extraordinary circumstances, they are actually painfully commonplace – guilt, loneliness, and melancholy. Writing in the first-person present tense Onomé immerses us in Summer’s sadness, erasing the distance between readers and Summer’s matter-of-fact perception of the seemingly hopeless nature of her abandonment. While Onomé’s writing is distinctly more poetic than in her earlier works, she refuses to romanticize Summer’s sadness. It seeps into the pages as quietly as a ghost, haunting the prose much in the way that depression can slip into one’s life and linger around the edges.
The description of Summer’s depression is made more powerful by the subversion of certain tropes applied to Black protagonists, and more specifically to Nigerians. The disappearance of Summer’s parents stems from their criminal acts of credit card fraud. Certainly, many Nigerians like myself have had to grit their teeth when faced with the ever-present racist and xenophobic jokes about so-called Nigerian scammers. Here, Onomé presents this stereotype but contextualizes it, particularly through the sensitive, visceral portrayal of Summer’s internalized shame and abandonment trauma. Summer must learn to move forward. But she also must learn that she isn’t alone; her relationship with her Japanese pop idol cousin “Kari” serves as a bridge through which readers can understand the importance of human interaction, mutual understanding, and acceptance.
Indeed, as much as we must accept each other, we must also accept ourselves – the reality of who we are, where we come from, and where we are in life. It’s through that acceptance that we can start to move forward, bit by bit. The novel’s message is powerful yet gentle, profound but accessible, which is characteristic of Onomé’s growing body of work.