Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson


Title: The Summer Before the War

Author: Helen Simonson

Published: March 24th 2016, Bloomsbury UK

Status: Read May 2019 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

The Summer Before the War is a winsome and poignant historical novel by Helen Simonson.

After the death of her beloved father, aspiring spinster Beatrice Nash is grateful to find a position as the Latin instructor in the village of Rye, East Sussex. It is the summer of 1914 and not everyone believes a young single woman is capable of teaching Latin, but with the support of society matron Agatha Kent, and her visiting nephews, surgeon-in-training Hugh and carefree poet Daniel, and Beatrice hopes to make Rye her home.

A quintessential turn-of-the-century village, Rye is a tight knit community, home to a cross section of English society, where everyone knows their place. Simonson wonderfully depicts the petty feuds, scandals and luncheon parties that occupy the town’s aristocracy, the traveling gypsies that camp on the outskirts of the village each summer, the largely uninterested, and unwashed, boys of Beatrice’s class, and the townsfolk and servants going about their everyday business.

But it’s 1914 and impending war heralds change for Rye and it’s inhabitants. Simonson skilfully contrasts the innocence of that summer with the changes to come. War is an abstract concept for most of the villagers, and almost all are convinced that it will be over in weeks, if not days. Even the arrival of refugees from Belgium, billeted amongst the eager wealthy families who want to be seen to be doing their duty, fails to communicate the gravity of the situation, as the mayor’s wife’s ill judged parade stunt proves. It’s only as rationing begins, as the men of the village leave and fail to return, or return broken, that reality begins to puncture the seaside idyll.

The themes of The Summer Before the War focus on the the Edwardian structure of gender and class, exploring Beatrice’s desire for independence, and a bright young gypsy boy’s wish for further education, amongst other circumstances, both directly and obliquely. Simonson also explores notions of duty, to oneself, to family, to others, and to the country in a time of war. And there is love, a slow-burning romance that takes two characters by surprise.

The pace is languid, reflecting the long days of summer, quickening as Simonson takes us to war. At over 500 pages some seem to find the story drags, but I was invested in the characters, and enjoying the subtle wit and rhythm of the language, so I didn’t really notice.

Engaging and endearing The Summer Before the War is a novel to enjoy at a leisurely pace on a warm spring afternoon.


Available to purchase from Bloomsbury UK

Or your preferred retailer via Booko or  Indiebound

Alternate covers

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Veronica The Burgeoning Bookshelf
    May 15, 2019 @ 17:20:34

    I loved this book when I read it. The characterisation was brilliant. I didn’t get the hidden twist until someone mentioned it in a book chat I was in at the time.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Stephanie Jane (Literary Flits)
    May 17, 2019 @ 04:11:37

    I’ve visited Rye and it’s still a picturesque town so I’d be interested to see if I could recognise any of Simonson’s locations.

    Liked by 1 person


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