The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – 5*s

Summer Before the War

Description

East Sussex, 1914. It’s the end of an idyllic summer and Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha in the pretty coastal town of Rye. Casting aside the recent sabre rattling over the Balkans, Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives, it is clear she is significantly more free thinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon, everything will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

Review

My goodness where to start. It is a long time since I read a book that had me so enthralled I felt I was experiencing the action and emotions of the characters, but this book made me do that. From giggling out loud to stifled sobs, this book really had an effect that will long stay in my memory.

It’s opening chapters were if I’m honest quite slow and the style took some getting used to. Coming from a diet of crime and psychological thrillers, the slower more genteel pace and action was a dramatic change, but well worth persevering with.

On the face of it, the book is a tale of a small provincial town coming to terms with an impending war and a slowly changing society. When Beatrice moves to Rye to teach Latin at the local school, it is a far cry from her role as secretary/assistant to her recently deceased author father. This position had allowed her some semblance of independence and freedom of thought and expression. Now, however, she is thrust into a world of petty rivalries and one-upmanship, imagined slights, class differences, unwritten rules and unspoken prejudices. Her appointment is also somewhat hampered by the fact that she is both younger and prettier than her spinster status implied.

Once I’d got used to the pace and style it was so easy to be drawn in to the lives and happenings in the village. The descriptions are so well executed and the characters so well drawn I felt I was watching the plot unfold like a play in my head. From Beatrice’s patron and defender Agatha with her beloved nephews Daniel and Hugh, the comical and pompous Mayor’s wife Mrs Fothergill, the rather obsequious suitor Mr Poot and the endearing pupil Snout, all the characters, even the minor characters came to life. There is both a humour and pathos in the writing that was exquisite. It was, to my mind, akin to Jane Austen meeting E F Benson in Cranford.

However, don’t be fooled by the superficial gentility and comedy of manners, this book touches on some hard hitting topics such as homosexuality, rape, suffrage and fornication (in it’s legal sense) to name but a few. Once the action moves into the theatre of war, it takes a much darker turn that really emphasises the hell that must have been life in the trenches along with the awful unlikelihood of surviving.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for the quality of writing through to the engaging nature of the characters and a plot that really does run the gamut of emotions.

I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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