The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson ( Allen & Unwin, March 2016)
Readers will find this second novel by Simonson very different to her first. It is still a beautifully written novel, penned with a wry humour, clever characterisation and insightful observations.
The novel begins in the last summer before World War 1, and centres on the village of Rye in Sussex. Beatrice Nash arrives in the village to begin work as a teacher of Latin, a rather adventurous and not quite proper subject for young ladies of the times, it seems. She has to work for her living because her father left her inheritance in a trust fund managed by her Aunt, which cannot be released to her until she marries – something she refuses to subject herself to. The village is a mirror of the society of the time, with everyone knowing their place from the aristocracy to the Romany gypsies camped outside the village, and a few free-thinking and independent characters thrown in. There are rumours of war which quickly transform into horrendous reality, and so begins the tearing at the fabric of Edwardian society. The novel is deceptive in its genteel language and bucolic setting because harsh tragedies begin to play out as men and boys are shamed into joining up, traumatised Belgian refugees arrive to be settled, and forbidden relationships are formed. The novel shifts to the trenches, and there the horror of war, intensified by the prejudices and stupidity of the leadership has awful consequences for some of the men and boys of the village.
It has been described as “Downton-esque”, and in reading the book it is not hard to see why. Simonson has tried to show, using this village and its inhabitants, the societal changes that were wrought by the war, the suffragette movement, free thinkers, and progress of time. It is an uplifting novel covering complicated themes in wonderful language. Although a little slow to begin with, it does gather momentum and all the threads are pulled together at the end.