Most interesting reads have layers that come from skillfully woven subplots integrated with imagery. These intensify the story’s ideas and tones. A well-read audio book adds even more layers. Narrators can augment character portrayals, accent the effects of sensory details, and expand connotations. This is certainly true of Fiona Hardingham’s narration of Helen Simonson’s “The Summer Before the War” (Penguin-Random Audio, 15 hours, 47 minutes).
Almost immediately Hardingham’s precise, elegant reading does two things. It transports listeners to the 1914 village of Rye in East Sussex, while also establishing the author’s old-fashioned tone. At first, the heroine seems as classical as the setting and style. Beatrice Nash, still recovering from her scholarly father’s death, has come to Rye to teach Latin. Hardingham hints at latent tension as she reveals Simonson’s pithy portrayal of Agatha Kent, Beatrice’s patron. Agatha is a woman “of a certain age” for whom “the bloom of youth has given way to strength of character.” Agatha has championed hiring Beatrice against the opinions of Rye’s elite.
Hardingham lingers while describing Beatrice’s first Rye morning when “the sun had not yet evaporated the dew from the lawn and the scents of honeysuckle and wallflowers rose on the salty breeze.” There is a hidden irony in Hardingham’s unhurried pacing. As she paints this lush, pastoral picture, one has a sense of a place frozen in time. But beneath the apparent beauty is a village that turns a blind eye to growing turmoil as the war brews.
A romantic trope emerges as Beatrice meets Agnes’ two nephews. Daniel, breathtakingly beautiful, distracts from his plainer cousin, Hugh. But Beatrice, who had previously decided on spinsterhood, sees Hugh as a safer objective, and listeners prepare for a typical romance.
But it’s clear by midstory that this is not to be. The effects of war grow less remote, and the village’s tranquility erodes as the citizenry becomes more openly hostile and harsh. The story that began with an affable tone transforms as Simonson tears away the pretense of gentility and plunges the heroes (and the listener) into frightening views. Hardingham’s reading gains tension as Rye’s upper crust show prejudices towards war refugees, local gypsies, suffragettes and homosexuals.
Amid this difficult environment, Beatrice experiences the betrayal of her beloved father. During his lifetime, he fostered her learning and independence. But after his death, she learns he has set up stringent trusts and rules that constrain Beatrice financially, intellectually and emotionally.
As Beatrice’s personal battles ensue, the setting moves to Flemish trenches and the pettiness that prevailed in the small town blooms into atrocities amid war’s brutality.
The story’s tragic end contrasts with its genial entry. Wry humor and softer tone are overshadowed by the pain of the disenfranchised. Hardingham’s narration seamlessly, ironically connects both elements into a poignant whole.