Len and Tad meet as they travel to their RAF squadron; Stella and Maddy on a bus ride where Stella subs Maddy the fare. The women meet the men at a dance and two romances blossom. So far, so ordinary. But this is the summer of 1940 and the Battle of Britain is about to rage in the skies.
The story is told in alternating viewpoints – first Len’s, then Stella’s. And the seques are smooth; particularly so in the first section as Stella fights to remain in control of her feelings and not fall in love with her beanpole pilot. The two narratives simply blend: these are two people caught in feelings (and events) they cannot control.
Stella: “Anyway, though we’d accepted the date, we’d no real intention of going to meet them at the Darnley. At least, I hadn’t. Far as I was concerned, if Maddy wanted a roll under the hedge with our admittedly well-groomed Polish friend, there was no need to drag me along. But though I’d only nodded, I felt somehow implicated, and his face had lit up so …..
No, I had other things to concentrate on. I’d keep my head well below the parapet on the romantic front for a while yet.”
Len: “Blokes were talking and laughing but I wasn’t listening. Thinking of how I’d be seeing her next Thursday, God willing. For once there were no worries, no fear. We’re alive till we die, that much is certain. And it’s going to be a scorcher, you can tell.”
The narrative voices and depth of characterisation is wonderful. Stella is educated and slightly worldly wise. Len is younger, inexperienced and working class and Stella constantly compares him with her previous lovers. Whether they would have loved each other at another time is a question raised, but never answered. Tad and Maddy both subscribe to the live for the moment camp and both are separated from their families – Maddy, voluntarily, though we are never made aware of the circumstances. Tad is a displaced Pole, fighting with the British to revenge the wrongs done to his homeland and the atrocities to his own family.
Through Tad, Greig introduces the darker side of the war and the motivations behind why people are fighting. Len and Stella, apparent pacifists, find themselves unconsciously part of the war effort. As the summer progresses, they mull over “what they have become” until, finally, as the Battle intensifies, and their personal losses mount, they move past anger and hatred into we-must-defend-what-we-love mode.
There is much detail about the Battle of Britain and The London Blitz – Stella is on radar watch while Len is a fighter pilot (and there is plenty of action for the boys) – there are also unexpected and poignant themes such as the generation gap between Len and his WWI veteran father, who, disillusioned because “we went through it once, now you’re having to do it all over again“, refuses to discuss either of the wars with his son. There are also thoughts spared for the opposing side; while the Luftwaffe is impersonal, threatening and monstrous, the German pilots, in their (near-)deaths, all too human, flesh and blood, just like the British. Stella invents a ghostly-Fraeulein whose experiences mirror her own:
I went on my way, thinking, What are we? We drop bombs on people we don’t know, can’t even see. And we’re sometimes kind to people we don’t know, we wince when we see pain, especially in children. And I know it’s the same on the other side. These same people that dropped the bomb on X (name removed) would in the street of their own town comfort a child with a bleeding knee, soothe and joke until she began to laugh. My opposite number, my ghostly Fraeulein, she certainly would.
Welcome respite from the intense pounding of war is provided when Len is granted leave and travels, first with Stella into Wales, and secondly, alone, into the Cairngorms for a few days hiking. And it is here that Len is granted the peace and tranquility he so yearns for. The Scottish countryside is painted masterfully and lovingly by Greig, a Scot and a poet. His prose is fluid and precise, drawing the reader into his pictures and to his characters .
As the Battle of Britain intensifies, so too does the relationship between Len and Stella. Len’s vision for the future:
I have to marry tis woman because whenever I see her now I have this urge to plant, deep and patiently. I can see her face, teasing and laughing and making me blush at my naivety. But if we live through this, and are to live well later, surely something must grow – children, sweet peas, routines and holly-hocks and marigolds. We must grow them to screen off the war years. Only once in a while will we mention it, out on a walk on our own or late when the children are in bed. And I begin to think I see why our parents kept their war to themselves. It was too horrible yet precious, it had gone too deep.”
Whether he gets his wish is, of course, the outcome I have no wish to reveal. I can say, however, that the blurb on the front cover is true: “It will be a long time since a book has made you care so much.”
I have to wonder why Andrew Greig is not better known. In 2004 he won the Saltire Book of The Year Award for “In Another Light”, the novel which sparked off my current interest in Scottish Literature.
“In Another Light”, much longer than “That Summer”, is set in Orkney and Penang and follows its protagonist, Dr Alexander MacKay, as he follows his father’s footsteps into the past. It’s an examination of how we see the past with contemporary knowledge but also, and more importantly, how we see our parents and their decisions with our adult perspective. Just as involving and intelligent as “That Summer”.
Greig is a mighty fine discovery and I’ve now resolved to read all his novels. Another three for the TBR then.