faber and faber, 2000, 261 p.
Scot Andrew Greig’s first book contained poetry. He has since published more poetry collections, non-fiction books on mountaineering and golf, short stories and, so far, seven novels. That Summer (also known as The Clouds Above) was his fourth novel and the first work of his I have read.
The summer of the title is the one of 1940, a fact which could be divined from the book’s cover, showing as it does a Hurricane in flight over a country landscape (with a shadowy female head in the upper background.) There is an elegiac feel to the story from the start, as, sixty years on, a reunion of sorts takes place at a long abandoned wartime airfield; yet the figures seem insubstantial, ghosts of themselves, or of those who cannot come back.
As a novel, That Summer deals with those three perennial literary concerns, love, sex and death. The narration is trifold, with all three intermingled through the book. Two are in first person – from the viewpoints of (Flight) Sergeant Len Westbourne and RDF operator Stella Gardam – and there are intermittent third person passages, some of which describe the ongoing war situation. Len’s comrade Tadeusz Polarcyk and Stella’s friend Maddy feature prominently. We are treated to the relevant narrator’s own thoughts and their perceptions of the other three. All are eminently rounded people with strengths and flaws, feeling entirely real – as do the minor characters.
The scenario could be over-familiar from all those 1950s black and white films – exercises in national myth-making – part of the long shadow which that war cast over those who experienced it (who themselves grew up in the shade of the earlier war, “I begin to think to see why our parents had kept their war to themselves. It was too horrible yet precious, it had gone too deep,” an all too present absence passed on in turn to their children (ie my generation) but in Greig’s hands it is far from hackneyed or clichéd. He captures well the transience and randomness of air combat, the dangers of losing sharpness on leave, the arbitrariness of becoming a casualty of bombing (the mangled, eviscerated, blown-apart bodies,) the heightened perceptions, the snatching at life in the midst of death.
That Summer could have been a mere love story but the quality of the writing elevates it beyond the mundane. It is subtle of Greig to have Len flying Hurricanes rather than the more iconic and glamorous Spitfires. It somehow grounds the story, makes it real. Of the veterans it is observed that, “They were there but even they couldn’t see the true losses.” Len comes to see that, “Everything we have, we lose. So to want something, anything, someone, is the beginning of tragedy. And yet, and yet.” After a particularly gruesome kill he thinks to himself, “What have I done? Nothing. Nothing at all.” Stella realises of Evelyn, a former boyfriend whom she sees one night, “He really does love me. Me, for who I am, not what he gets from me, and with (a) slight shiver (I) knew this would always be rare in my or anyone’s life.” Later in the book she muses, “Wartime is like real life but more so,” and, “How can we love anyone, when they’re just going to die?” but “there’s nothing else to do but love, nothing to be regretted but not loving.” Her first (pre the events of the novel) lover, Roger, whom she meets again accidentally, tells her there is not much more than beauty and sacrifice, “We must take what beauty there is, and sacrifice is all around us.”
A few hints of the author’s Scottishness make themselves felt. Stella spent a couple of schoolyears in Scotland. Len’s squadron is posted to Aberdeenshire for a rest period and he spends three days walking in the Cairngorms.
For those who survived the war, its long, nigh-on six years, these were the days of their lives; what followed, a slow descent. And 1940 was the crux. (“In a way it was all rather exciting, being bombed.”) By accumulation of detail Greig shows us this and, by doing so, also shows us what it might have felt like to be alive in Britain, that summer.