Thursday, August 4, 2016

"The Summer Before the War," by Helen Simonson

A new novel by Helen Simonson, the author of the absolutely charming and compelling novel “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (about which I posted on 6/16/10), and which is a hard act to follow, is “The Summer Before the War” (Random House, 2016). It does not disappoint – far from it. The war it refers to is World War I, and the setting is the small town of Rye, in Sussex, England. It is a glorious summer, with all the gentle pleasures of England at its best, but it is soon marred by the approaching reality of the war. The local people form committees and try to defend their own area, offer support for the soldiers going off to war, and take care of their share of refugees, in this case from Belgium. The beauty of this novel is evident in layers. On one level, we see the gentle pace of life in the town, and the interactions of its residents. On another level, we see the pain and fear and tragic losses caused by the war. On still another level we see the problems brought about even in a small town by prejudice, infighting, rigid morality, and pettiness: discrimination based on class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity, among other types. To be fair, these prejudices are typical for the time period, but that does not make them any less angering and saddening. In addition, though, suffused throughout is a sense of humanity, as well as some understated humor of the Jeeves/Lucia/garden party type. The characters include the wonderful (and surprisingly liberal, for her time, but always in a diplomatic and careful way) Aunt Agatha, the center of the town’s activities; her nephew, the serious Hugh, a newly minted doctor who is torn between two romances; her other nephew Daniel, a budding poet who charms everyone but is caught up in a scandal because of who he loves; Beatrice, a writer who has had to make her way in the world alone since her scholarly father died; the scheming and petty Lady Fotheringill; the bright and intrepid young Gypsy boy, nicknamed Snout, who loves Latin and learning but whose promise is cut short because of society’s intolerance of his people; and many more. There is even a famous writer clearly based on Henry James (who did in fact live in Rye), who is revered but also gently (and at one point not so gently) skewered for putting his writing before his loyalty to humanity. As the story moves from the “before the war” portion to the “during the war” part, it gets darker, for obvious reasons, and we start learning increasingly bad news. Although very little of the novel takes place at the battlefront, there is enough for us to be horrified and saddened, and these feelings are reinforced by the pain of the survivors back home. “The Summer Before the War” is one of those “big” novels that contains much about human nature, England, war, love, ambition, and more, and the reader cannot help but be drawn in. That the author can balance the weight of all these topics with an intermittently light touch is admirable, almost miraculous.
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