ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

From the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand [Ed: a really enjoyable book, Phil, I’m sold already!] comes this tale set just before the outbreak of World War I and during the first few months of the conflict. Located mostly in Rye in East Sussex the inescapable comparisons are going to be E F Benson’s “Mapp & Lucia” novels and there is, at times, more than a hint of this as well as a good dollop of PG Wodehouse- style writing. There’s also a loose nod to one of Rye’s most famous inhabitants, Henry James, with man of letters Mr Tillingham, an American literary giant who is living amongst them. (Another nod to Benson as Tilling is his name for Rye in his novels).

Beatrice Nash arrives in town in the early summer to prepare for work as the Latin teacher at the Grammar school. She finds out that her appointment was made only through the intervention of the women on the Board of Governors, as a man would have been preferred. One of these women, Agatha Kent, takes her under her wing and Beatrice is introduced to Agatha’s two nephews, surgeon-in-training Hugh and poet-in-waiting Daniel. There’s a good feel of small-town life as the storm clouds of war amass: plots to keep Beatrice in her post, social gatherings and fetes and when Belgian refugees arrive in the town the townsfolk’s “charitable” notions once again remind this reader of EF Benson. The prospect of war, however, gives a darker edge, as there’s training and enlisting going on around the social gatherings and unsurprisingly, when war does break out and we move with some of the characters to the battleground the tone shifts.

There is a mix throughout between the heightened comedy of manners which evokes Mapp & Lucia and Wodehouse and more realistic writing which can at times seem as if Simonson is struggling to find her voice for the piece, but this also does have the effect of making it unpredictable and very enjoyable. I think I was expecting something more nostalgic and gentler from the title but by leading the characters into combat this cannot be so. Even the good people of Rye have to drop social conventions and petty squabbles at time of war and I think this comes across well. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m sure it will gain many fans.

Phil Ramage
Personal 4
Group 4

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson
9781408837641|Bloomsbury 24th March

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