The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
|The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: Another story of England as it slides into WWI? Yes, but beautifully told; charm and smiles pre-conflict vying with the throat-catching horror of war. The author of the wonderful Major Pettigrew's Last Stand does it again!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 592||Date: March 2016|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing|
|External links: Author's website|
Summer 1914: Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye following the death of her father, hoping to earn a living as a Latin tutor. Despite being the sort of woman with ideas of her own, she has allies in the family of local pillar of the community Lady Agatha. Agatha may not have realised just how modern Beatrice is but she'll stand by her after having been her sponsor for the post initially. Meanwhile Agatha's nephew, medical student Hugh soon warms to Beatrice but his heart belongs to Lucy, his surgeon professor's daughter. Soon, though, the events of a small town summer will fade in importance; the Balkans will explode and Europe is thrown into a war that's far from the swift, romantic, consequence-free conflict of which summer daydreams are made.
Helen Simonson's debut Major Pettigrew's Last Stand looked at love, manners and the English class system. In this, her second book, Helen takes the English class system back to one of its least shining moments: just before and during WWI. Indeed, while there has been a lot of fiction surrounding WWI in this its centennial period, nothing I've read so far contrasts the gentility (for some) and disparity (for others) of that final summer with the horror of what followed so well.
Beatrice is the stranger in the midst of small town Rye and so a great pair of eyes for us to share. She dares to believe in women's suffrage and her experience of others' marriages has put her off the idea for life. Beatrice is therefore determined to work and support herself for the rest of her life (cue local shock and outrage).
Hugh is our other pair of eyes and fits more into the lifestyle and society one would expect of a student surgeon. However to get what he wants there are sacrifices that by today's standards are very thinly veiled blackmail. If he wants the surgeon's daughter there are hoops through which he's expected to jump, failure to do so risking his professional future as well as the romantic.
The bane of Hugh's life, younger cousin Daniel is more the make womanising hay while the sun shines type. For him his talent is the means to an end, making him an ideal study in how the horror of war makes men of boys and changes attitudes as well as lives.
Helen doesn't just present us with unforgettable central characters though. I dare anyone to finish the book and forget about Snout. Full name Richard Sidley, he's one of Hugh and Beatrice's underprivileged informal pupils. Born to a gypsy traveller family, he's doubly disadvantaged in class-ridden small town Rye. His talents are as diverse as poaching and Latin translation, the latter being as much a disadvantage among his peers as the poaching is among the landowners.
It's also interesting that Helen finds book space for a jaw dropping silent comparison between early 20th century and early 21st when the 'good' people of Rye are faced with something beyond their experience, polarising reactions. This is one of the many examples that bear testimony to Helen's sharp eye and even sharper wit, enabling her to pinpoint the subtext in issues and moments with just a few words.
Whatever you've read about WWI, don't feel you've read it all until you've read this. Even though we could never fully understand the lives and times of those caught up in the war without a time machine, Helen takes us a step further on the journey from knowing to feeling.
(A huge thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like to continue with the theme of thought provoking stories around World War I, we also recommend Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo, a tale of the aftermath back home.
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