When a review copy of Judith Kinghorn’s debut The Last Summer found its way to me just before Christmas, I had only recently published my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012 and immediately felt it should have been included, given the current mania for all things World War I. If you are a fan of British TV series Downton Abbey – and a lot of people are – there is a strong chance you will love this book. (I’m conscious of being the millionth person to say this.) I had intended to re-read it before writing this review and didn’t have time; instead I’ve come to realise how much it’s stayed with me considering I’ve read 20 other novels since.
The Last Summer is narrated in the first person by Clarissa, daughter of the aristocratic Granville family of Deyning Park, a grand country estate in the South of England. It is structured in four parts/time periods, beginning in 1914 (the ‘last summer’ before the outbreak of WWI, when Clarissa is almost 17) and ending in 1930. This is a ‘genre-bending’ book (finally I get to use that term!) with elements of historical, romantic and commercial women’s fiction, but at its heart it is the love story between Clarissa and Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper’s son, who is ambitious and well-educated but very far from her social equal. The class issue is interwoven with the trauma of the Great War and the way it affected and irrevocably changed British society at all levels, not sparing the aristocracy and Clarissa’s family with its three sons.
This is a very ambitious debut novel; if the enduring fascination with the era is the main attraction, it’s not without risks for a writer. When I mentioned The Last Summer to a friend who is a history graduate, she commented that it was a brave undertaking because the period is so well-documented by those writing at that time. However, due to a combination of meticulous research, great storytelling and writing, Judith Kinghorn pulls it off.
Clarissa tells her story looking back, in a captivating voice which overlays her naivety and feelings at the time with a subtle sense of retrospect. First person narration only succeeds if the reader is able to invest in the character and their worldview, which I did. The style is very romantic and feminine (more so than I usually like); at times a little flowery but in general, beautiful, with stunning visuals throughout. The author has a gift for evoking those years using all the senses, as here:
Like my mother’s orchids, I had been nurtured in a controlled environment [..] protected from cold snaps, clumsy fingers and bitter frosts. My three brothers, on the other hand had been allowed […] to develop unruly tendrils, to thrive beyond the confines of any hothouse, to spread their roots, unrestrained, through that English earth they belonged to. It was different for a girl.
I was absolutely transported into Clarissa’s world: its elegance, its limitations, the changes it underwent. My response to Tom was quite complicated – I went off him quite a lot at one point – but I did believe in the passion between them. The sex scenes were tastefully, and surprisingly, erotic. The only aspect of the story that didn’t work for me was the number of thwarted encounters; I think this risks trying the reader’s patience. Something that worked very well was the way in which experience changes Clarissa; I really enjoyed the decadence and glamour of the jazz age in London and the contrast with the private dilemmas she was facing.
There’s a lot of naming and ‘telling’ of emotion in this novel, but it felt genuine. The portrayal of the effects of war, not just the lives completely lost but those blighted by grief and the terrible aftermath faced by those who returned from the trenches, is very moving. It is integral to the characters’ experience and that’s why The Last Summer works, because the ‘love across the class divide’ theme and many of the plot elements here are all too familiar. My writing mentor believes there’s no such thing as a clichéd subject (just clichéd treatment), and overall Judith Kinghorn does steer clear of cliché, by the quality of her prose and by adding twists and suspense to those storylines. There’s a cryptic exchange of unsigned letters which injects an ongoing mystery to the story and an extra frisson to the ending, a point many readers will be reluctant to reach.
It would make a wonderful film.
I’m currently compiling my Top 10 Summer Reads which will be posted in mid-May. Next week I’ll be writing a feature on Geographical Settings in Fiction.