So, I’m conflicted now. I have just finished reading The Summer Before the War, a brilliantly written novel by Helen Simonson. It had me chuckling over the antics of stuffy, Edwardian matrons, fuming over the injustices toward the main character, and it had me ugly-crying for the entire last quarter for those whose lives were irreversibly changed for the worse.
I want to review the book. I really do. However, any review I make will be colored by my aversion to anything that deals with the erosion of decency when humans go to war. My heart breaks a little bit more whenever I read about how horrible people can be to each other, and especially so when they are supposed to be on the same ‘side’.
There was very little mention in this book about ‘the enemy’. However, the enemy was right there in front of everyone all the time – and it wasn’t the dreaded Germans. It was the small-minded, despotic people with a little bit of power. It was the ones who gained a little bit more power from the descent into war. And it was those who wielded this power without thought for the humanity of their actions.
It seems humans, as a whole, have trouble wielding power. Compassion and justice are replaced by stringent rules and punishment regimes. Twinges of conscience over messing around with other people’s lives are suppressed. And because power is so fleeting, decisions are taken with a view to retaining power, rather than necessarily being the right decision.
I’m the absolute prime example of a human being who has a little bit of power, but who fails to wield it correctly. I have a son, so I have the power of a parent over him. I can tell him to go have a shower, have dinner, get off the computer, feed the dogs, do your homework, and so on and so on.
But I’m a fickle leader. One of his jobs is to do the dishes after dinner. But sometimes, I will do the dishes, so he doesn’t have to. Sometimes, I’ll punish him for not doing the dishes, other times, I’ll sigh, and end up doing it myself. Sometimes I thank him for doing the dishes, other times, I’ll get him to come back to the kitchen because the job wasn’t done to my satisfaction. There is no consistency to my reign. I’m just lucky that my subject loves me unconditionally, otherwise there would have been mutiny long ago.
Why am I so bad at wielding my parent-power? Because I am human. We are changeable, temperamental creatures. We might be happy today, and sad tomorrow, and our exercise of power is dictated by this. In the book, grief outweighs good judgment. Pride outweighs good judgment. Fear outweighs good judgment. And powerless people suffer. Over and over again.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to review The Summer Before the War. It’s depictions of people at their worst hurt my heart. But if you want to read a really good book, I’d totally recommend it.