The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

Review - The Summer Before The WarEast Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent sabre rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And 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 with one trunk and several large crates of books, 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 the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

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Reviewer: Gina

Rating: 5 Stars

I am so very pleased to be able to give this book 5 stars. I considered my rating all the way through, but by the end I was certain. A mild and gentle—genteel, in fact—England is captured in beautiful detail in the descriptive prose. I was very present in the book, and saw my surroundings through the characters eyes.

At times, I wondered if Ms Simonson was being too vague with elements of the storyline because she could be just as veiled as her Edwardian cast. While I knew what she alluded to in a couple of situations, in at least one I needed more detail earlier on in order not to feel I had skipped a part or just not understood what I had read. She juggled a village worth of characters, narrators, and situations with varying degrees of success, and I think things could, at times, have been a little tighter. Also I did get a little lost on a couple of occasions with mentions of names I didn’t remember, but I’m the sort of reader of forges on with the mindset that all will become clear. It always did. Possibly the blurb is a little misleading as Beatrice Nash seems to do little teaching, and even less writing.

The story itself was a meandering slow-burn tale, and the reader is lulled into a false sense of security about the horror of war in much the same way as the inhabitants of Rye are in the book. I enjoyed the detail of Ms. Simonson’s narrow focus on such an idyllic setting because it took this microscope approach to really produce a reaction to The Great War—in so much as we are used to it being recounted from a much wider angle in history textbooks and documentaries. This book brought the familiar uncomfortably close. In fact, it reduced it right down to a personal level on behalf of the characters who sneaked their way into my affections and, for me, the ending was a triumph.

 

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