If the author’s name seems familiar to you, it probably means that you read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was her first novel. It was a resounding success. He has now followed this with a very different work indeed. Set in Rye in Sussex in 1914, the story takes the entranced reader from this warm, welcoming township to the ghastly trenches in Flanders. Beatrice Nash has just been appointed the Latin teacher by the School Board. A truly ground-breaking appointment a woman to tutor Latin students? Unheard of! When she arrives and is found to be both young and attractive, the scandal deepens.
The nephew of the dominant Board member, Agatha Kent, Hugh Grange, met Beatrice, finding her unexpectedly beguiling. After all he was supposed to be courting Lucy, the daughter of the leading London surgeon, under whose mentorship he was completing his medical studies. With the rumblings in Europe this idyllic summer could not continue, war is inevitable. With it came many changes in the village, and both nephews, Daniel and Hugh go to France. Daniel, Agatha’s favourite, is a budding poet, so he seems utterly out of place in khaki. Though, knowing now as we do, about the remarkable poets who wrote about the First World War, this is a clever inclusion from the author. The other clever aspect of this particular work is the stylised manner of the writing.
The conversations, especially, reminded this reviewer of Trollope, as each character appears to have his/ her own syntax. Simonson does not spare the reader any of the horror of war, some of her best writing is given over to the clearing stations at the front, bringing shudders to the spine of the reader. One aspect of the 1914-18 war of which I was not aware was the arrival of refugees from Belgium in England. This adds yet another dimension to this long, often tragic tale, and a very welcome one, especially with the introduction of Celeste.
When you decide to read The Summer Before the War, do not expect the joy of Major Pettigrew and you will soon be immersed in this very different narrative. It is a long book, but you will be delighted to know that the lark still sings in an azure sky in the aftermath of the terror and loss.
THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by HELEN SIMONSON
PUBLISHED by ALLEN & UNWIN for a recommended $32.99