Arctic Summer

Written by Damon Galgut
Review by M.K. Tod

Spanning the years from 1906 to 1924, Arctic Summer transports readers from England to India and Egypt in this fictional biography of E. M. Forster. A quiet man, confined by society’s norms, Morgan Forster struggles his entire life to come to terms with his sexuality and find love. The novel opens in 1912 with Forster on a voyage to India, then moves back in time to his first encounter with Syed Ross Masood, the man who has prompted this journey, in 1906. As his tutor, Forster is immediately drawn, both physically and intellectually, to the impulsive, engaging, and culturally exotic Masood.

Six years later, England’s empire is on the brink of breakdown. War is brewing and India’s desire for independence is growing. Morgan Forster is both intrigued and appalled by India. Galgut describes this great country in all her complexities—the beauty of countryside and luxurious palaces, the shackles of poverty and tradition, the overwhelming heat and inexplicable fantasies and mythologies. While there, Forster conceives the idea for what was to become his greatest novel.

Morgan’s return to England is followed by his war service with the Wounded and Missing Department of the Red Cross in Egypt. There, Morgan develops the second enduring relationship in his life with a man named Mohammed el-Adl.

Primarily narrative in form, the novel draws on Forster’s fiction, non-fiction, letters, and diaries. Although occasionally too dense with the details of Forster’s sexual affairs, Damon Galgut’s prose is perfect for the time period and subject he has chosen. Forster comes alive as a man whose desires must be kept from the world, a man who continued to doubt his talent and who “despite his literary success… the notion of being a writer felt like an ill-fitting suit.”