The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Do we need one more novel about the First World War and the lives of characters that lived - or died - during that time? Yes, if it is by Helen Simonson. Her new novel The Summer Before the War begins that idyllic summer overshadowed by the threat of war, and carries on through the war and into the first days that follow the armistice.
Helen Simonson’s first novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was the lovely story of a lonely widower and his new love, who was considered not quite the right choice by many. It was a delightful novel about finding love the second time around and the family dynamics between father and son, and life in a small English village.
The Summer Before the War has the same stellar writing, the insight and the humour but is set in a much darker time. Life in England in the early 1900s was good for many. For Agatha and John Kent, members of the upper class in the village of Rye, life was very good. Their nephews Hugh and Daniel are like sons to the couple. John Kent holds an important government position and is well aware of the approaching war, knowing that when it comes his nephews are exactly the right age to fight. Into this mix arrives Beatrice Nash, a young woman recently orphaned, who is to take up the position of Latin teacher at the local school. Agatha and Beatrice seem to be kindred spirits and Beatrice is immediately drawn into the family circle.
There is a great cast of supporting characters, including a local author, based on Henry James who did live in Rye at this time. There are the society elite, and the social climbers, along with the local gypsy travellers and the Belgians who arrive in England escaping from the German invasion of their country. It is a time of great change and heartbreak as the young Englishmen are sent to war and slaughtered in alarming numbers. The pages of the society magazines are filled with engagement announcements as the young men leave – and even more filled with death notices soon after.
Trench warfare is brutal, and life at home is full of worry for those waiting for news of their loved ones. This novel is also about the societal changes taking place – the loosening of the corset strings and social mores in general as women begin to take on more responsibility in the community, and work at more than charity teas.
Of course, the audience for this novel will include the legions of Downton Abbey fans, but it more deserving than that. The writing is superior, and the story captivating. The Summer Before the War is a novel that will give you that lovely pleasure of losing yourself in the experience of reading a really good book.