The Summer Before the War 

Reviewed By  Grasshopper2       April 14, 2016


Author  Helen Simonson

Distributor:       Booktopia/Amazon 
ISBN:                 9781743311288
Publisher:         Allen & Unwin
Release Date:   March 2016  


Set in East Sussex in 1914, this story tells of a wonderful summer in a small village where so many aspects of life have not changed for hundreds of years. There are still the ruling class, the workers and the gypsies. However, progress and change are looming large, and not all for the good. The many characters we meet come from different backgrounds and walks of life with a particular focus on poets. We are reminded of a time of different values and judgements.

 One of the main characters is Agatha who has been the mistress of an influential home in the village. She had decided that the new Latin teacher at the school should be a young woman who has applied for the job and convinces the board to employ her. This is indeed progress!

 Agatha’s adored nephews live with her and fear there will be a war. Hugh is a medical student, and Daniel is a poet. Within the village there are many rivalries and petty issues that have probably existed forever, which are both amusing and exasperating to follow.

 However, the rumours are correct, and war is declared. A group of Belgian refugees is sent to the village of Rye with committees set up to help these people. The young Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, has found herself in the middle of this turmoil and tries her best to fit in. With Agatha’s and her nephews’ support, she begins to enjoy village life. When war is declared Hugh decides his medical training will be needed at the front and enlists.  A young gypsy boy, who has a gift for Latin, but would never be given a chance to further himself, also enlists. He is fifteen!

 The carefully researched chapters about life in the trenches highlight the stupidity of many actions of the wealthy, which although they have commissions, have no training or common sense to support their troops. One such leader insisted on a band to welcome an inspection from England. The enemy were able to precisely pinpoint the location of the English troops and adjusted their weapons accordingly.  No mercy was shown to their own troops if rules were broken.

 Some of the war poetry written at this time reflects the horror and helplessness of the men.

 The picture painted of village life before the war is idyllic with the relationships between the characters developing appropriately. The many humorous actions by the Mayor’s wife, who truly feels the importance of her role in the village, are something we can all relate too. There is a parade, and floats, and cake baking, with all as it should be.

 Beatrice, meanwhile, will find the love of her life after believing she has been cast upon the world as a penniless spinster. There are many satisfying aspects of this saga as it brings many a smile.