Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: The Summer Before the War - Highly Recommend

Helen Simonson has a gift for bringing characters to life and painting the picture of their lives with beautiful brush strokes of lovely prose. I adored Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and had a feeling I would enjoy her newest book, The Summer Before the War, just as much. It was stunning and sad, engrossing and entertaining.

Beatrice Nash has just arrived in the small coastal town of Rye to apply for a position as the Latin teacher. The residents hadn't expected her to be so forward-thinking (she wishes to be recognized as a writer and scholar) or quite so young and beautiful. Now she must make a place for herself or be reduced to depending on her deceased father's family for support. Her primary advocate, Agatha, introduces Beatrice to her young nephews, Daniel (a poet) and Hugh (a medical student training to become a surgeon). With the mischievous help of these two (successfully inebriating her only rival for the job), Beatrice secures a place and a small room in a cottage in the village.

Beatrice encounters many of Rye's most colorful characters and fights for scholarly recognition both for herself and for one of her young students, Snout, a gypsy boy with an impressive grasp for Latin. Before life can grow too comfortable, the unthinkable happens and they are all thrust into a state of war. Hugh, Daniel, and Snout all head to the front lines in different capacities, leaving Agatha and Beatrice to worry over their safety.

The novel highlights prejudice and progress. Beatrice can sympathize with the plight of the poorly reputed gypsies because her own personality is perceived as too progressive (she is more highly educated than most women her age, she rides a bicycle, and she yearns for a chance to prove her own literary chops). Class wars and cozy village scenarios abound.

This piece of historical fiction captures so well the climate of war and its influence on the lives of the people. Moreover the writing is elegant and beautiful. Here is an excerpt that reveals the flavor of Simonson's prose and the altered attitudes war creates:

"Hugh had quickly found he hated playing the surgeon, making the morning rounds of the rows of the injured and indicating with a crook of his finger which cases he would take for the day. After a few weeks, he had instructed his nurses that he would choose only 3 head trauma cases a day. For the rest of his shift, he was to be sent any case that was considered most pressing. Hugh often lost track of his hours as he stood on a brick floor, slick with blood, and worked through an endless train of stretchers heaved on and off his operating table. He rubbed his hands together, slowly, his fingers dry and sore from hot water, carbolic soap, and the brush with which he cleaned his hands between patients. He never skimped on his hand-washing even when the nurses were holding together ripped arteries, even when he could hear the patients breathing blood. He was deliberate in his movements, moderate in the tone of his commands, and calm in the face of the most appalling injuries. This had earned him notice from his superiors such as he had long sought in his medical school years, but he took no interest in their praise now the dream of acclaim and fortune as a surgeon with a prosperous practice and a tall house in Harley Street had been rendered insignificant and empty in the face of the daily carnage. His calm was merely the numbness that saved him from insanity."

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the British accent of the narrator, Fiona Hardingham, as she read these stunning passages. Despite the length of the book (16 hours of listening pleasure), I remained fully engrossed in the tale and wept in spots toward the end when the harsh realities of war were most pronounced. I fell in love with the characters and thrilled at the triumph of love and despaired at the destruction of lives. I will happily keep my eye out for more from this talented author (and will seek the books out in audio form because the listening brings such satisfaction).

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