That Summer, by Andrew Greig

The summer in question being that of 1940, and tells the story of Len, a Hurricane pilot, and Stella, a radar operative, who fall for each other during the Battle of Britain.

The book is told in sections written either by Len, Stella, with occasional passages by a narrator who might be Stella in later life. At the start of the summer, Len begins his career as a fighter pilot, and by the end of it he's leading his own flight: this shows how quickly things moved back then I suppose. In parallel, Stella is learning how to read the machinery which gives the airforce a chance to see the incoming bombing raids and send up the fighters to intercept them.

By coincidence, I read this book immediately after N or M?, which was set in the same time period. The Agatha Christie book was written more or less contemporaneously, whereas this book was written fairly recently (2001?) but both books did evoke quite a strong sense of the period - most obviously the worry of an imminent invasion and "fifth columnists". But whereas the Christie book was a bit old-fashioned and therefore of the 1940's, this one was written in a more contemporary style and was more effective - I thought - in conjuring up the feel of the time that, while comparitively recent, is lost to us. At one point, Len stays out in a Bothy which has a mud floor. Towards the end of the book the writer reflects that if you visit the Bothy now, the floor has been concreted over: the floor which Len slept on is still there, but just out of our reach, as are the generation of that summer.

The book wasn't exactly unputdownable, but as it went on it did make the characters feel very real, and I was didn't want it to finish. Towards the end (where it's not clear whether Len, Stella, or both, will survive the war), I was trying to decide whether it would be a better book if one or both of them died, or if they both survived: I knew I would be saddened if they didn't both make it, but what would be the "best" ending? Maybe "best" means the one which has the most emotional impact, even if that is a negative emotion? On the other hand, having one of the characters die is a bit obvious: maybe it would be best to go against expectations and have them both live happily ever after. Or maybe that would be a cop-out to sentimentality. Having finished the book, and knowing what happens, I'm still not sure what the "best" ending would have been. But I did enjoy the book, and would like to read more by Greig.

Completed : 13-Dec-2007 (audiobook)

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