Six years after her debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson is back with a second novel – and, in my opinion, it has definitely been worth the wait! The Summer Before the War is a beautiful, moving story about a small town in East Sussex and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War.
It’s the summer of 1914 and spinster Beatrice Nash is arriving in the town of Rye to take up a position as Latin teacher at the local grammar school. Despite the support of Agatha Kent, one of the school governors, Beatrice quickly discovers that not everyone is happy with the decision to offer the teaching job to a woman and that she could be about to lose her position before she’s even begun.
Also in Rye for the summer are Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, two young men who think they know what the future holds: Hugh expects to complete his medical studies and then marry Lucy Ramsey, daughter of the surgeon he has been working for, while Daniel, an aspiring poet, hopes to go to Paris and start a literary journal with his friend, Craigmore. With the onset of war, however, all of these plans will be thrown into disarray and life in Rye will never be the same again.
Towards the end of the novel, the action switches to France where we join the men in the trenches, but most of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to those lazy, idyllic summer days and the changes that are brought by the approach of war. The rigid social structure in place at the beginning of the summer – a time in which independence in women such as Beatrice is seen as something to be discouraged, the atrocities experienced by a young refugee girl make her a social outcast, and Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore risks causing scandal – begins to break down as the war progresses and priorities change.
The Summer Before the War is a long book (with a lovely, cheerful and sunny front cover) but I enjoyed every minute I spent with this set of characters. The story is told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity – and some witty, Jane Austen-style dialogue. Occasionally a word or phrase feels out of place, but otherwise the atmosphere of that summer of 1914 is perfectly evoked. Although the pace is quite gentle I was completely absorbed, discovering as I reached the final chapters how much I had come to care for the men on the front line and the women left behind.
This is a warm, emotional and poignant story and I was close to tears at the end. I loved it and look forward to more from Helen Simonson.
Thanks to Lovereading for providing a review copy.