THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR


summerbftwcoverHelen Simonson’s THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR begins gently, the way good stories and good music do. Its opening paragraph situates young doctor Hugh Grange, one of its main characters, in the lovely English landscape, “The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramids of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light.” Such an introduction is at odds with rules designed to confine contemporary fiction to a straight jacket dreamt up by academics with too much leisure and not much imagination. According to these rules, contemporary readers must be hit between the eyes with an opening sentence that dazzles them to the point of disorientation. Place and time are  vague. Readers must  work for entertainment. Sentences must be short, adjectives and adverbs must vanish and nouns that have the vaguest etymological association with Latin are forbidden. Passive voice is taboo and so the gerund. Hemingway’s clipped journalistic style trumps Dickens and Trollope’s.

Fortunately, Simonson rises above such silly directives. She renders the town of Rye and people as  timeless and universal. There is a special alchemy in that. There is magic firmly rooted in British literary tradition. Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, had the gift to tell stories that transcend time and place. So does Simonson. Her characters range from those burdened with the prejudices of their place to those ho can break free from parochial morality and outdated conventions. Well-traveled, well educated, forward thinking Beatrice Nash, is one of the latter. Eager to escape the humiliating confines of the aristocratic household of a domineering relative, she accepts a teaching job at Rye. There she meets Hugh Grange, who has been tutoring underprivileged boys while he spends his summer vacation at the home of his aunt Agatha Kent. She also meets Hugh’s cousin, poet Daniel Bookham, an effete poet who is the perfect foil for the level headed young doctor. The three become Beatrice’s friends and supporters.

Beatrice moves into Mrs. Turber’s house, a woman of Dickensian narrow mindedness. In time, she meets the local social leaders, the wannabe social leaders, and the local outcasts, personified by a Roma family. Add to that mix Belgian war refugees and the sweet Sussex summer acquires an entirely different flavor. This is a change that Simonson handles with exquisite deftness. What seems,  at first, no more than a good read in the style of Barbara Pym, deepens into a study of social conditions and their effect on the life of minorities—the Roma—and the powerless—women. But this is done without preachy condescension. As the story moves from tense peacetime to war, Simonson’s theme darkens. Effete Daniel’s sexuality comes into question, solicitor Poot, another Dickensian character, reveals his ambitions, a newly arrived couple of writers hits Rye’s brick wall of prudery, Agatha Kent discovers the limits of her tolerance. The Roma boy for whom Beatrice has such hopes  learns that the scholarly life to which he aspires is barred to him. A Belgian refugee whose beauty initially gains her the approval of townspeople soon confronts a crisis that nearly turns her into an outcast.

ut these are nothing but the bones of the story. The real thing is richer and far more enjoyable. It is well constructed and enlightening though it never attempts to bludgeon  the reader. Rather, it relies on unaffected simplicity.  This is superior writing by a gifted author. It is a work I want to keep close  as I keep those of Dickens and Trollope. It is work to which I will return after I recover from having my heart wrung by sadness of the awful war that sundered Hugh, his cousin, and so many Sussex boys from their golden landscape where, in summer, “…the bluffs were a massive unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a slate silk dress.”

THE UNREADABLE


In my opinion,  fiction writers rarely choose stories.  I believe that more often than not, stories that demand to be told choose someone to  tell them.  Surely neither Andrew Vachs,  Patricia Cornwell, nor other novelists whose works ooze blood and gore derive much pleasure from imagining vicious killers and their deeds. Publishers do derive pleasure from profits and readers there are who enjoy putting money into the pockets of writers and publishers of gory novels. This seems to be a symbiotically cozy arrangement for those involved.

Trouble is that some readers lack whatever it is that makes reading gory stories enjoyable. I am one of those. My view of the world is sufficiently dark–what with ISIS and other mad people creating mayhem globally–that  do not I find side trips into the minds of imaginary psychopaths all that entertaining. That is why I see M.J. Arlidge’s THE DOLL’S HOUSE and Fiona Barton’s THE WIDOW  as fiction to avoid. The former follows the ghastly doings of a criminal who abducts and starves young women. The later deals with a poisoner and a policewoman who likes to be brutalized.  I cannot go into details. I stopped reading both books after the first few chapters.That no doubt disqualifies me from judging them fairly.But the problem is not the writing. Rather, it is the topic I find unapproachable. all masterfully crafted, Having read Nabokov’s LOLITA, John Fowler’s THE COLLECTOR,  and Emile Zola’s THERESE RAQUIN,  I lean into the universal privilege of readers, that which allows me to refrain from diving  into the garbage pit of  fictional criminals’ mind. I feel no compulsion to read pedestrian writing about fictional killers just so that I can  say  with satisfaction that there but for the grace of god go all of us.  Writers may abdicate the responsibility of choosing their topics. I, as a reader, cannot.  My time is finite, unlike the activity of writers and publishers. No, I will leave these two novels to those who are capable of appreciating them. I certainly cannot.

ECSTASY IN SPITE OF IT ALL


To say that the main characters and narrators in LUCKY SOUTHERN WOMEN, by Susannah Eannes, are aspects of the same a duality is to risk stripping the story from its rich complexity. Yet it is difficult to see Phoebe and Sophie as irreducibly distinct. Friends since pre-adolescence, these two Alabama natives evoke light and shade, fire and water, yin and ying. They are, essentially, two aspects of a culture whose icons include opposites such as Scarlett O’Hara and Harriet Tubman. But it is not far-fetched to conclude that their differences helps cement their relationship. Cool headed, grounded, analytical Phoebe needs dramatic, romantic, fanciful Sophie to jolt her out of her primness. Sophie, on the other hand, needs Phoebe to be her to remind her of the advantages of seeming balanced and conventional. In Eanes’s South, the tendency to deviate from conventional morality is not forbidden. What is forbidden is the act of flaunting one’s unsual proclivities.
Both Phoebe and Sophie know very well that until further notice, life is all about appearances. Adultery is not as huge a sin as making one’s extramarital dalliance public. Anyone can be mentally ill, fragmented, irreparably scarred as long as they do it discreetly. Sweep the oddities under the carpet, wear pretty silk dresses, go to church on Sundays, and keep the community from having to deal with unpalatable realities such and incest and spouse abuse, and everything will be as sweet as pie. This knowledge is only a small part of what these friends share. Both yearn for profound changes. Both want to transcend povert and emotional neglect. Both want to overcome the obstacles placed in their paths by inadequate families—here Eanes joins William Faulkner and Eudora Welty as a chronicler of magnificently quirky, if not out-and-out crackpots—both want, above all stability, respectability and and a good economic situation. That marriage is the only solution they find for their problems seems anachronistic a good couple of decades into American women’s struggle for equality. Eanes prepares the reader to understand that in her characyters’ south, time dos not move as rapidly as it does up North. Red Level, Alabama, is impervious to its passage. Trapped in the past like a fly in amber, it is “…as dry, dusty, and dead-end a place you can have… Here nothing has changed since Prohibition, and people seem downright proud of their ignorance.”
As in all good stories, neither Phoebe nor Sophie are static characters. They grow and they change as they progress towards their dreams. They marry, they have children, they get jobs and they begin the process of becoming adults. Phoebe, the more ambitious of the pair, believes that education is the key to an independent life. Sophie, the autodidact, the dreamer, the poet, thinks that love’s transformative power is the answers to the questions she has begun to ask about her life. Being a doctor’s wife, owning a clothes shop, raising perfect children is not enough. She craves the intoxication of an earlier romance, a reprise of the all consuming passion she felt for the former beau she traded for stultifying domesticity. When she meets him again, seven years after he joined the army and left her to wait for him like a southern Penelope, all hell—a discreet kind of hell, mind you– breaks lose. Just as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and other literary adulterers, she sees her dull husband for what he is. An affair with her former beau is an unavoidable cataclismand if the cataclism comes with the gift of a Porsche, who can blame her?
Sensible Phoebe reacts to these shenanigans by going into full Jimminy Cricket mode. She tries to make Sophie see sense, she tries to remind her of family responsibilities. She knows it is no-go, but she persists in face of Sophie’s obdurate insistence in crashing and burning. Sophie, in turn, wants none of Phoebe’s mealy-mouthed advice. She has found her raison d’etre and as far as she is concerned, it is all out of her hands anyway. She bears no responsibility for the aftershocks that will result from her emotional quake. This is not a simple romance. This is an act of God, it is predestined, it is unavoidable.After all, she and her lover are not flaunting convention. If she “…. hasn’t been the perfect wife she has at least been discreet and put on a public face that would do credit to any church-going woman.”
Eanes’s skill in making Phoebe and Sophie into real people is admirable. She tells their story loving and gracefully. She mixes heartbreaking lyricism with clear-eyed analysis of the social conditions that shape her characters and she shows the reader inner and outer landscapes of surpassing sadness and enormous beauty. These are perhaps her greatest strengths as a novelist—extraordinarily musical language, amazing descriptive power, and the ability to create landscape and characters that refuse to fit a single category. Yes, her Alabama is harsh, it is behind the times, it is often unpretty. It is also strong, resilient, nurturing and unforgettably lovely. Her Phoebe and Sophie are Protean and therein lies the universality that carries them beyond the American South to make them citizens of the world. Last but also important, is the treasure of Southern expressions which Eanes bestows upon the reader, Here is a small sample,  “(She) cut her eyes toward the river…” An elderly relative has “one foot on the grave and another on a banana peel…” Too much effort for an unworthy cause is “too much sugar for a cent…”Richtexts welcomes Eanes to the ranks of Eudora Welty, Carson Mccullers, and Dorothy Parker.

LUCKY SOUTHERN WOMEN is a Propertius Press book.https://propertiuspress.wordpress.com/about/