Saturday, 25 January 2014

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson reviewed by Julia Jones

 I was persuaded into buying That Burning Summer by an outstandingly good blog on the History Girls's outstandingly good blog site. In it Lydia Syson described the mix of family reminiscence (from her WW2 grannies), love of a particular place (Romney Marsh), the influence of her children's enthusiasms and her own historical realisations -- the courage of some Peace Pledge Union members, the uses and abuses of propaganda, that exploitation and abandonment of Britain's Polish allies -- that had fed in to her 1940 Battle of Britain novel. What I particularly liked about Syson's blog was the way she concluded. "All these ideas kept swirling around my head as I wrote [...] You won't find many direct references to them in the story that finally came out, 'the tale of a girl a boy and a crash-landing' - Peggy, Ernest, and Hendryk - but they're there in the warp and the weft of the novel."

Now that seems to me to be exactly the right place for research -- 'in the warp and the weft of the novel', completely assimilated. It's so tempting, isn't it? in the excitement of historical discovery, to Write All You Know. 

The other temptation is to think that, because you've researched something very similar yourself, that you already Know It All. The quantity of work I put into editing the most recent edition of Margery Allingham's The Oaken Heart (her autobiographical account of the same period) had given me a tendency towards WW2 Home Front fatigue. I realised I was wrong when I read Kathleen Jones's excellent novel The Sun's Companion and I realised it all over again as I became engrossed by That Burning SummerNovelists like Jones and Syson use their intelligence, their imagination and their integrity to remind us that the war was different to every individual who endured it. 

Syson knows and loves her locality. She doesn't make a big deal out of this but conveys the beauty and the loneliness of the marsh, especially after the sheep have been removed and the Lookers who would normally be watching over them are instead scanning the skies for invaders. The single detail of the crashed aircraft gulped into the greedy mud suggests that the marsh as an actor in its own right. It will conceal some thing s utterly: others, like the hastily buried parachute, it will give up again. The humans who live there cannot control the marsh, they must understand it and negotiate. That Burning Summer conveys the isolation and oppressiveness of the small village community as well as its closeness. Peggy, Ernest and their mother have come back to the farm where their mother grew up but they have come back as strangers, and, worse, as strangers trying to keep a secret. Their desperate sense of strain is one of the best things in the book. 

Peggy, the 16 year old heroine, reacts to strain by gabbling, behaving erratically, being gawky, self-conscious, suspicious. Henryk, the Polish pilot who has seen and suffered more than his RAF colleagues can conceivably understand, has gone beyond mere strain and has run out of courage. He has deserted. The intensity of the feeling that builds between him and Peggy is beautifully handled. Syson's outstanding character, for me, is Ernest, the 12 year old who has not been let into anyone's secrets and who is struggling to cope with the hailstorm of official regulation and instructions. Ernest IS earnest, he's possibly just this side of Aspergers but he's utterly credible, comic and touching -- the true son of the absent father, whose determination to adhere to his pacifist beliefs is making life so unusually difficult for his family. 

There are no easy answers in That Burning Summer -- as there were none in the summer of 1940. There is however plenty of unpretentiously excellent and varied writing and a kindliness in the characterizations that make it a thoroughly enjoyable read as well as an admirable piece of historical re-creation. 

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson is available as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback
Lydia Syson's photo of an isolated church on Romney Marsh