I'll admit that I have always been fascinated by both WW1 and WW2 ( I studied the second for 5 years!), so I am drawn to novels based in that time.. particularly those that show how life changed after war was declared in 1914.
The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson does exactly that. What starts as a very interesting look at a young woman trying to make a life for herself, amidst bereavement and social expection, soon becomes a heart-wrenching tale of families brought together briefly only to be torn apart, of friendships and lives lost, and of the brutality of war.
Whilst as the title suggest the war plays a large part in this story, it's not the only theme that Simonson weaves through the novel.
I found the intricacies of how women were expected to behave fascinating, particularly as the majority of the women in the story seem intent on breaking away from them. The accusations thrown at one of the male characters shows how even the men were held to "ideals" that we would now deem oppressive.
From a woman trying to prove she can be a good teacher to a young doctor going to the battlefields to further his career, the author has developed some wonderful characters in The Summer Before The War and by the end of the story you feel as if you know them personally; the ones you like, the ones you can't stand and those who are judged by others who you would quite like to give a hug!
Through all of this there is also the challenge of how a small coastal village adjusts to Belgian refugees living with them.. I have to say they were far more welcoming than we seem to be towards refugees at the minute.. even if some felt they weren't the "right kind" of refugee!
This book will make you question not only the attitudes of the time and how things have changed since, but also how you view the role of others.. children are still seem to be taught that the British Army could do no wrong, and yet there was immense brutality in the ranks; largely dealt by officers onto their troops.. officers who didn't understand mental illness or the side effects of shelling such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (although even now many of our soldiers don't get the PTSD support they deserve).
If you're looking for a light airy read then this probably isn't for you. It shows the dark side of life at the beginning of the 20th Century and doesn't shy away from that. I laughed and I cried, but I also reflected.. it's a book for provoking thought and I would definitely recommend it to you. You don't need to be interested in WW1 to read it, you just need to be interested in people and a time gone by.
The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson is released 24th March 2016 and will be available online and from all good bookshops. You can preorder it on Amazon here.
If you do give this a read make sure to come back and let me know what you think!
Stay safe, x