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Possible Blogging Hiatus

Things may be sparse around here for a while. The good lady’s blog friend from the USA, Peggy of Peggy Ann’s Post and whose Read Scotland 2014 Challenge I signed up for last year, has arrived for her long awaited holiday in Scotland.

As a result we will be busy showing her all the sights, or at least those sights not too far flung from Son of the Rock Acres. Time for blogging may be limited.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying to retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

Read Scotland 2014 Overview

Twelve months gone and 29 books “Scottish” books read. (Or 30 if The Member and The Radical count as two; then again perhaps only 27 if A Scots Quair is treated as a single book.) That’s 2½ per month, give or take. And, if you discount the exceptions already mentioned, not a repeat author in the list.

2 were non-fiction; 4 outright SF/Fantasy; 18 were written by men (20 if the trilogy is separated) and 9 by women. (That gender disparity is lessened by 50% if you consider only authors still alive in 2014, though.)

I’m pleased to have caught up with John Galt and have already bought two more of his novels, delighted to have read A Scots Quair at last, made acquaintance with William Graham, Neil M Gunn, Carole Johnstone, Jackie Kay, Agnes Owens, Muriel Spark and Alan Spence and refound Naomi Mitchison. My main discovery, though, was Andrew Greig whose That Summer is the best book by a writer new to me (Scottish or not) since I first encountered Andrew Crumey.

My review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is still to appear. See later this week, or even tomorrow.

There is apparently a Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I don’t think I’ll make 29 this year. I’ve got a lot of other reading to catch up on.

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 3, Whippleshield Books, 2013, 71 p

 Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above cover

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is the third of Sales’s “Apollo Quartet” novellas wherein he mines the byways of the 1960s space programme but puts his own spin on it. This one is told in sections labelled “Up” and “Down” – the “Up” parts delineating the history of the US space programme in a timeline where the Korean War lasted for eleven years and, men being unavailable due to their military commitments, it was women who became astronauts; the “Down” describe a mission to retrieve from the Puerto Rico Trench the contents of a misplaced spy satellite recovery. (Deep-sea exploration is another of Sales’s areas of interest.) Additional sections named “Strange” and “Charm” tell of the information gained from the spy photographs and the response to it while “Top” and “Bottom” give a history of deep-sea exploration technology and women’s involvement in the space programme in our world.

As is usual with Sales the detail he includes is convincing but the human dimension is not lacking. His heroine, Geraldyne Cobb is well drawn.

Surviving the Shipwreck by William McIlvanney

Mainstream Publishing, 1991, 253 p.

Surviving the Shipwreck cover

This is one I read for completeness. (And it counts for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.) McIlvanney is one of the most prominent Scottish writers of the second half of the twentieth century, with a string of highly regarded novels to his name, all of which I have read with immense pleasure and admiration. Despite his output being mostly outwith genre (unless the Scottish novel is a genre) he is credited as being the “onlie begetter” of Tartan Noir – not an accolade he sought or even necessarily agrees with – but many Scottish writers of crime fiction speak of him as an inspiration. (And not only writers of crime fiction.) Surviving the Shipwreck is a collection of his journalistic work from the 1970s and 80s.

It starts with a preface setting out the thread of the pieces within – the shipwreck of the book’s title is the loss of social idealism, of belief in our ability to reconstruct society more fairly, of that strand of left-leaning thinking that isn’t Marxist (McIlvanney says the Scots always found Marxism/Communism to be wrong-headed) but had been submerged by the prevailing political climate and, despite the banking crash of 2008, still is.

The first piece was written in the run-up to the first referendum – the one that was won in 1979 but was also lost due to the requirement for more than a majority to bring a Scottish Parliament about. (In effect dead people voted no.) In it he lays out the hopes and fears that Scots had about the prospect, many of which were repeated in the referendum of 2014. In a particularly brilliant phrase he describes the displacement of what might have been political energy into other areas, the most recent example being “the B picture remake of the Darien Scheme that was Scotland’s World Cup sortie into Argentina.” He also predicted the eventual (typically Scottish in its lack of resolution of the problem) result. What struck me on reading this in 2014 is the change that actually having an extant Parliament in Edinburgh has made to the Scottish psyche. There is much less anti-English feeling, much less fear of being too wee and too poor, much more confidence in Scots’ ability to do things for themselves. The displacement of energy into football too is much less pronounced (but that may have been due to the fact that Scots came to realise that by and large our footballers are – at least at present – mediocre at best.)

Then there is a piece on the city of Edinburgh’s manifold dualities, which made me reflect on how perfect that then makes it as a capital for a nation of so many divisions; another on the corrosive effects of poverty and how the benefits system traps people in it; the mysteries of disco and its differences from the dancin’; the experience of the dog track; the delights and miseries of following the Scottish football team, “The train standing at Platform One is the Wembley Football Special. This train has an Inferiority Complex Car where light traumas will be served throughout the journey. This train goes by way of Paranoia, calling at Little Dependency, National Neurosis and Ultima Thule,” not least to Argentina in 1978, when McIlvanney, along with five companions, undertook one of those epic trips through the Americas and remembers most of all the kindnesses received everywhere, but especially in Argentina; the dispiriting experience that is Las Vegas; the reduction of life to personal economics; the accepting nature of old fashioned pubs; the necessity of highlighting the plight of those left behind in the wake of materialism; the mutual incomprehension of men and women; the resorts people will turn to to alleviate their lack of funds; the haunted nature of living in North America, the lack of inter-community feeling; the more humane socialism of Scotland compared to Eastern Europe; the necessity for teachers and pupils to reach a meeting place; the challenge both to the cosy detective novel and also to the dismissal of a fiction if it can be labelled genre that his novel Laidlaw represented; the defining characteristic of the Glaswegian (humane irreverence); cultural elitism in T S Eliot’s poetry criticism, and more generally; the manifold losses – not just of jobs and worthwhile lives – that monetarism inflicted on Scotland; the genesis of his novel Docherty in the lack of presence of working people in literature.

In Gulliver’s Last Voyage McIlvanney essays a Swiftian look at Scotland’s attitude to its history, a series of forgettings and inventions underlain by the fact that, at some time in the past, the country was sold against the will of its people.

Notable insights were:-
(We have) “a society where the government is dedicated to ignoring the damage its policies inflict on ordinary lives.”
“Everybody can understand selfishness and greed, and Thatcherism has constructed what passes for its political philosophy out of these two brute instincts. The dignity of just complaint must never be lost. Without it, we accept what we shouldn’t accept.”
“The greater radicalism that has at least nominally persisted in Scotland may be partly attributable to the fact that the country (was) virtually powerless. It is easier to have noble ideals when you are not obliged to live according to their terms day by day. But that greater radicalism is also partly attributable to a tradition of taking ideas seriously. We must not lose that. Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous but not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.”
“The policies of this government resolve themselves into one basic premise: they are a licence issued to the wealthy to exploit the poor… Margaret Thatcher is a cultural vandal. She takes the axe of her own simplicity to the complexities of Scottish life. She has no understanding of the hard-earned traditions she is destroying. And if we allow her to continue she will remove from the word “Scottish” any meaning other than geographical. (There will be) incalculable damage to the future – the loss of belief in society, the anti-social tendencies encouraged, the lesson branded on thousands of minds that you are alone and your society doesn’t care.”

These criticisms are still relevant I fear.

Pedant’s corner:- they didn’t use to be there (the phrase is “used to be”) and that bad (badly)

Way To Go by Alan Spence

 Way To Go cover

The novel starts arrestingly with the narrator, Neil McGraw, sitting up in a coffin, reading a comic and eating a sherbet straw. Neil is the son of an undertaker whose business motto is Rest Assured. Neil’s mother died in childbirth, the child in question being him. Despite his profession, Neil’s father has never come to terms with his loss. His favoured punishment is to lock Neil away for the night with the (empty) coffins. The novel is from the outset, then, dealing with the Big One, death – one of the great triumvirate of novelistic concerns. As the first sentence indicates it does so in a strikingly non po-faced way. Funeral urn contents are referred to as cremains, an embalmer come from Kirkcaldy to demonstrate this up and coming method of dealing with the recently deceased is dubbed by Neil the “Wraith Rover” and the book probably contains all the jokes you have ever heard about death, and a few more besides.

Despite him asking nearly everyone he meets the question, “What happens when you die?” Neil is not enamoured of the prospect of taking over the business and scarpers to London at the first opportunity. One of the bohemian types he falls in with dies unexpectedly and in a sequence emblematic of Spence’s approach is sent through the crematorium curtains to the sound of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s Fire!.

Unable to settle Neil makes a peregrination around the world taking in the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, an IRA funeral in Dublin, a cremation in Bali, phases out at the funeral pyres in Varanasi, the city where he meets Lila, the woman who will become his wife.
His life undergoes a U-turn when his father dies and he returns home to organise the funeral. While there a widow comes in and asks him to bury her husband. Neil is reluctant but is persuaded and steps into his father’s footsteps offering a bespoke service of unusual colourful funerals under the motto “Way to Go”.

Spence’s Scottish credentials are apparent from the off with words such as wersh and winching peppering the text, but he feels the need to define smirr – somewhat erroneously – as a fine drizzle (it’s thinner than that) and spells the word as “hotching,” which I have seen but I am more familiar with “hoatching”.

I suspect I shall remember Way To Go for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- a “shrunk”, “had poured half he wine,” stedfast, AIDS uncapitalised.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1934.

A Scots Quair cover

After the form of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, the previous books in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trio, the text of Grey Granite is divided into four sections, here named after semi-precious stones, Epidote, Sphene, Apatite and Zircon, though unlike its predecessors there is no prelude, proem nor epilude in Grey Granite.

Following the death of her second husband Robert Colquohoun – whose last action to shock his ex-parishioners was to have himself cremated – Chris Guthrie has used what money remains to her to move from Segget and take a half share in a boarding house in the city of Duncairn. [An authorial note at the start informs us this name is amended from the author’s first choice Dundon, since early reviewers in English journals were mistaken in thinking it represents Dundee, nor yet (though it has a Cowgate, a Canongate and a Royal Mile) is it Edinburgh as an American newspaper had it, nor even – notwithstanding its granite buildings – is it Aberdeen (two Scottish sheets) but the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns have hitherto failed to build.]

It is perhaps this setting that makes Grey Granite seem less grounded than the previous two novels in A Scots Quair. While Gibbon’s descriptions of the industrial cityscape are fine they do not have the lyricism of his evocation of rural landscapes. Indeed it is notable that when the story breaks the bounds of the city the writing lifts. But in his defence here Gibbon certainly cannot do without Duncairn. It is absolutely necessary in a novel sequence about modern Scotland (as he was essaying) to encompass the industrial habitat in which most Scots live. And this is only a criticism in the context of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe. Taken on its own Grey Granite would stand as a fine mid-twentieth century Scots novel.

Another factor contributing to Grey Granite’s relative lack of force is the focus moving from Chris to her son Ewan. He is drawn into socialism after taking a job in a metal works which later gains an arms contract. He organises a subsequent strike and is arrested and beaten up by the police. It seems that police accounts of incidents diverging somewhat from what actually happened are never new. In addition, Ake Ogilvie, who had also come from Segget to work in Duncairn, opines, “there was as much graft in the average Scots toun as in any damn place across the Atlantic.”

Once again there is the shifting of narrative viewpoint familiar from Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, by which the Rev MacShilluck for example is well drawn; in a few devastating paragraphs scattered through the book. The text is of its time in some of its references: “psychoanalyst Jewboy chaps” reads shockingly today.

Her business partner, Ma Cleghorn, tells Chris there’s nothing worse than “some old runkle of a woman body living on with no man to tend and no bairns.” As to men, “(they) never live at all. They’re just a squeeze and a cuddle we need to keep our lives going. They’re nothing themselves.” Ewan himself thinks, “A hell of a thing to be History! …. LIVING HISTORY ONESELF.” His treatment of Ellen Johns, a teacher who lodges in the boarding house and helped Ewan along the socialist path is in the end less than gallant. Chris had warned her, though, as we were forewarned in Cloud Howe.

Chris certainly does not have her troubles to seek. Ma Cleghorn dies, Chris contracts a misguided and doomed marriage with Ake Ogilvie, who is instrumental in effecting Ewan’s release from prison. She muses that, “SHE HAD NOTHING AT ALL, she had never had anything, nothing in the world she’d believed in but change… Nothing endured,” and, “We’re all on leading strings out of the past.” She tells Ewan, “The world’s sought faith for thousands of years and found only death or unease in them.” He replies, “It’s the old fight that maybe will never have a finish…. The fight in the end between FREEDOM and GOD.”

On reflection, and after rereading passages, my initial feeling that Grey Granite was not quite at the level of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe may be a touch harsh. It’s a fitting enough conclusion. As Chris comes full circle, “She’d open her eyes and see only the land, enduring, encompassing.”

Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas

Polygon, 2009, 499 p.

 Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas  cover

Various encomia adorn both the back cover (“Agnes Owens is one of Scotland’s best yet most overlooked writers,”) and the before-the-title pages of this book. Owens is someone of whose name I’d been aware but whose work I’d never sampled till now, an omission a chance encounter in a local library enabled me to rectify.

Like Birds in the Wilderness1 is a rather rambling tale of an unemployed bricklayer with a fondness for drink who moves to a northern city seeking work, meets a girl, encounters a military type who cryptically offers him unspecified employment, goes hiking in the highlands, returns home.

A Second World War childhood/adolescence figure in both A Working Mother2 and For the Love of Willie.

Betty is the titular working mother, the focus around which the events of the novella orbit. She is married to a war hero, but the only things she and her husband, Adam, have in common are alcohol and two children. As her husband is unemployed she goes back to work to help support the family. Her job takes her into the office of widower Mr Robson. This relationship, like hers with Adam’s friend Brendan, is not what propriety deems it should be. A few final scenes undercut the reliability of the previous narrative by revealing Betty is telling her story to a fellow mental patient.

Any unreliability issues are addressed at the start of For the Love of Willie where Peggy is an inmate in a psychiatric ward who announces to fellow patient, the duchess, her intention to write a novel based on her own life, scrounging or stealing paper to do so. The two phases of Peggy’s life are then told in parallel describing how her wartime employment in the shop of Willie Roper led to her present state. Peggy’s mother tells her warningly, “No man’s as nice as he looks” and also that (men) have habits worse than dogs. Peggy herself tells the duchess that love is only sex with a sugar coating round it. I note here that this novella’s title may be a crude pun.

Bad Attitudes3 revolves around the doings of the Dawson family – recently decanted from a condemned terrace to a new council flat – the busybody downstairs, her across the close neighbour, the local councillor they both consult, the one man who refuses to leave the old terrace, the tinkers who have squatted there and their sister/in-law. It takes a strange turn near the end when two murders are committed in the terrace.

In Jen’s Party Jen lives penuriously with her mum, Maude, and Aunt Belle. Her father is in jail but she thinks he merely left and is well off somewhere with another woman. Belle is a force of nature, blithely careening through life while Maude feels the struggle. Belle organises a party for Jen’s fourteenth birthday which, on the day, brings all sorts of things to a head. The dialogue between Maude and her sister in this story is immensely readable and sparkles with authenticity.

One of Scotland’s best writers? I’m not wholly convinced yet, but she is certainly worth reading. I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:-
1 encyclopedias (why the US spelling?) inadvertantly, skuttled, fruit wellies (jellies,) proprietory, stoney.
2 sprung – though sprang is used later, before I could take if off, dotary – which I’ve only ever seen as dottery before.
3 if she hadn’t seen it for her own eyes. For? It’s usually with.

That Summer by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 2000, 261 p.

That Summer cover

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.

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