GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2016
The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
In mid-1914, School teacher Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye, a pretty coastal Sussex town to teach Latin to the local children. She is under no illusions that they will share the same love for the great language as she, but she means to make her very best attempt to instil within young minds the epic poems taught to her by her father, an internationally recognised and revered classical scholar, from whose death she is still recovering.
Beatrice is determined to make her own way in the world, to support herself by her own efforts, rather than to depend on her father’s aristocratic but socially isolated (by their own rigid ideas of self-worth) relatives – who are not so eager to see her depart their care, for the sole reason that she may embarrass them by being ‘employed’ – which only makes Beatrice more determined to succeed. She also vows never to marry, to yield all the decisions of her life to a man perhaps not smart enough to make them, especially not financially. Beatrice admires Women’s Suffrage too, which makes her a square peg in a round hole, particularly in Rye, whose traditions and customs have been set in stone for centuries.
Until the Great War changes everything. In Ms Simonson’s lovely story the social strata of Britain is revealed in all its degrees of ugliness: Dickie Sidley nicknamed Snout, Beatrice’s top Latin scholar (there aren’t many of them, but he is sharply intelligent and reads Virgil for the huge enjoyment it gives him) is denied the school Latin scholarship because his father is a Gypsy – and even if Snout didn’t have the Romany taint he still wouldn’t be eligible because his family is poor.
Hugh Grange, an aspiring young doctor under the tutelage of an eminent Harley Street surgeon (and in love – he thinks – with the Great Man’s charming daughter) is railroaded into enlisting in the Army Medical Corps, not because lives must and will be saved by their expertise, but just imagine the scientific glory to be heaped upon those who can be at the forefront of new treatments for wounds great and small! Hugh is privately uneasy that ‘men’ are not mentioned – just wounds. The surgeon’s daughter, too, announces that any admirer in her circle who doesn’t enlist will be presented with a White Feather, the symbol of cowardice, by her and her equally patriotic friends.
Snout is so crushed by the school’s decision to award the Latin scholarship to a rugby player that he persuades his father to give him permission to enlist – a 15 year-old child, off to fight the Hun just as his favourite Trojan heroes did thousands of years ago. His fate towards the end of the book is horrifying and undeserved, a searing and terrible example of inept and privileged leadership by those ill-equipped to have power over men, at the front because they had a title, and had inherited or bought their commissions.
Ms Simonson has marshalled a great cast of characters, too many to name here but all equally important for the many secrets they hide and hypocrisies they represent. She has a lovely gift for writing humour in every form through all the social strata, and while I warn that this book is a real door-stopper (580 pages – yep, you’ll need strong wrists!) it is beautifully written and completely absorbing to the last page. FIVE STARS
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley
‘Traitor’,Stephen Daisley’s debut novel six years ago (see review below) earned him several distinguished Australian literary awards, and ‘Coming Rain’, his second novel, has recently gained him New Zealand’s top literary prize. And rightly so.
Set in the Western Australia of the 1950’s, Mr Daisley paints an enormous canvas of harsh, bright horizons, red dust and flies ( I swear I can still hear them buzzing and feel the dust clog my nostrils), myriad wild creatures trying to survive and mean little settlements peopled by men and women as tough and unforgiving as the landscape. Mr Daisley’s word pictures are breathtaking and brutal as he introduces us to his protagonists, Painter Hayes and Lewis McCleod, itinerant shearers-cum-charcoal burners on their way to shear sheep for Mr Drysdale, a landowner in decline; his wife has recently died and the land is starting to get away from him. Even though his lovely daughter Clara has returned from that posh finishing school to help him out, he can’t seem to find the old motivation, the old drive to farm the way he used to. He is wallowing in his grief.
Painter and Lew are an unlikely pair: Lew has been with Painter for ten years, since he was eleven when his mother sent him off with a shearer’s agent after she was given a carton of Lucky Strikes; fortunately for Lew he was taught the job by Painter, a Gun shearer – and a brawling, boxing drunk on his days off. Painter lacks a lot as a father figure, but Lew is not complaining, for they look out for each other; they work hard and travel from job to job in an old truck that becomes more scarred with each journey – but it still gets them there, as reliable an old horse. He can’t imagine a different life for himself – until he meets Clara Drysdale, gloriously fit, charmingly pretty, a great horsewoman and dog-lover (she has a whole pack of adoring canines) – and the boss’s daughter.
Painter tries to warn Lew away from certain disaster, but Clara is just as smitten and persuades her ardent admirer to ask her father for permission to ‘see’ her – and the consequences of such a respectful and timid request are more brutal and tragic than anyone could imagine: this reader didn’t see the figurative sledgehammer coming, and I am still shivering with horror, but again full of admiration for the sheer power, the absolute mastery of narrative that Mr Daisley displays, especially in his parallel story of a female dingo who keeps on crossing Lew’s path, both of them ultimate survivors in a brutal world.
What an honour it was to read this book. I wish my review could do it justice, but I don’t have Mr Daisley’s wonderful word-power. SIX STARS
Traitor, by Stephen Daisley
This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity. There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous: the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country?
David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli; he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy. They are all victims of the next explosion; the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand. They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself: he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’.
He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war; people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’.
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction. It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land. Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century. His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling. SIX STARS