Monday, 15 January 2018
Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Summer Nineteen Forty-Five" by John Lucas
In his famous essay The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), George Orwell declares that, for those fighting in the Second World War, ‘a better life is ahead for them … and their children.’ Ironically, the darkest days of the war simultaneously encode a moment of utopian, visionary promise: Orwell believes that a very ‘English revolution’ might emerge from the wreckage of the war. This strain of optimism, idealism and utopianism can be traced throughout the war – in works such as Powell and Pressburger's film A Matter of Life and Death, for example – and immediately afterwards, in the popular jubilation of V.E. Day, and the subsequent election of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. It is also one of the subjects of John Lucas’s beautiful and poignant third novel, Summer Nineteen Forty-Five.
In this novel, set in the aftermath of V.E. Day, the main character’s mother puts a ‘VOTE LABOUR’ poster in the window, and constantly looks to ‘“the promise of the future,”’ when ‘“everything will be better.”’ She is one of many people ‘“who genuinely hoped the world would be different after ’45,”’ as her son, Peter Howard, puts it. The novel celebrates this hopefulness – arising from the joy of victory in both war and subsequent General Election – whilst also charting the disappointment, disillusionment, which accompanied it: ‘“They built their hopes too high,”’ says the son, many years later.
Somehow, everything seems to change, or seems about to change for the better in 1945, and yet, paradoxically, nothing changes; as Orwell suggests, ‘England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.’ This paradox is what the locals in Lucas’s novel flippantly call the ‘“same difference”’: everything is different, everything stays the same. Likewise, the main character, Peter Howard, ‘must have thought that in the days and weeks following the announcement of Victory in Europe the village of Stonely would continue to breathe the atmosphere that lit up each new day of peace … Now: open the window, inhale the new air. Stretch out a hand to feel the breeze on your bare skin, shiver excitedly at its promise. But no. It didn’t take long to fade, this excitement, it dwindled, dulled, sank back into ordinariness … As the summer went on so, he recalls, in the faces of people he passed in the street … the shadow of disappointment, of let-down … The anticipation [was] so great, the realisation so small.’
One of the problems, as the novel makes clear, is that the anticipation of change for the better – the belief in a new beginning – is always haunted by the past, in this case the horrors and losses of wartime. And not only the past: in the small village of Stonely, the horrors of wartime seem to carry on, after V.E. Day, in the unexplained death of a young evacuee, Lorna May, and the suicide of a local boy. Peacetime is still haunted by violence, evil and loss: ‘When, many years later, Peter thinks back to the summer of 1945, it occurs to him that … the unappeased spirit of the girl was haunting the woods … Something bad had happened … You could say that some malevolent power had been set loose. But you could as well say that this was not confined to a small, rural area of the English Midlands, any more than it was a unique phenomenon of the time when wickedness – Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Hiroshima – provided all the evidence anyone could require of the insufficiency, the fraility, of light, warmth, kindness, against the world of night.’
This tension between light, warmth, kindness and, indeed, hope, as opposed to ‘the world of night’ is everywhere in the novel. Lorna May’s death, its subsequent sensational treatment by the local press, the behaviour of the villagers, and the suicide of one of the suspects, all of these images come to symbolise what Peter Howard calls ‘“a wider betrayal”’ of post-war optimism. In this way, Lucas’s novel stands as a powerful microcosm of wider, historical, political and social trends. It also stands as a very contemporary warning, at a time when the promise of Orwell’s England, Howard’s mother’s optimism, of war-time idealism, post-war Socialism, of the NHS, the Welfare State, seems most under threat.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.