SUMMER NINETEEN FORTY-FIVE: A NOVEL
By John Lucas
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It’s the mid-1970s, and Peter, a forty year-old journalist and
less-than-successful novelist, looks back thirty years to the summer
of 1945. He was then ten and living with his mother in a village in
The Herberts, a childless local couple, had taken in a London evacuee, Lorna May, earlier in the war, and according to Peter’s mother, had not treated her well, using her as a “skivvy” to do household chores and run errands. She, in turn, is rebellious. Peter and his friend, Ronnie, know Lorna May, though an incident when she’s stealing apples from Mr Harrison’s orchard and they’re supposed to be watching out for him but run off and leave her when he appears, sours the relationship. She feels that Ronnie, in particular, has betrayed her.
Lorna May disappears and a couple of days later her body is found near an old hut. Her neck is broken and the inquest returns a verdict of accidental death, possibly due to her jumping off the roof of the hut. It was a game that local children had often engaged in, and some doubt is expressed about whether or not she was likely to have injured herself in that way. But no-one presses for further investigation. She is buried and the matter appears to end there, at least until Lorna May’s mother, Mrs Perry, turns up in the village.
She’s a restless woman and not content to accept that her daughter’s death was an accident. But she gives the impression that she’s more interested in stirring up trouble in the village than expressing any real concern for Lorna May. She had never bothered to get in touch with her at any time during the war. A local youth, Keith, described by Peter’s mother as “simple”, comes under suspicion, largely because he was the person who found Lorna May’s body. Mrs Perry carries her prejudices with her and Keith, slow-witted, not very articulate, and prone to occasional bouts of sudden anger, suits them to her satisfaction.
She involves the press and soon rumour and gossip begin to affect life in the village. When Peter’s mother remarks that the newspapermen are “making trouble” for Keith by highllghting Mrs Perry’s allegations, he asks if that’s what they’re really doing, and she replies: “Of course that’s what they’re doing. They may not see it like that……..They’ve probably convinced themselves that they’re simply in pursuit of the truth”.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. It’s suggested that others – the German POW, Hans, a local tramp, Whistling Billy, Mr Harrison, the Herberts – could have been caught up in events. That’s how it occurs to Peter and Ronnie, at least, though they’ve no way of knowing what really happened. They just can’t believe that Lorna May, a tough, street-wise young girl, would have broken her neck jumping a few feet from the hut to a bed of soft grass.
The adults don’t know what happened, either, but that doesn’t stop some men at the local factory from beating-up Keith once the newspapers start to print innuendo, hinting at his possible involvement in Lorna May’s death. People, given encouragement by irresponsible journalists, will always turn on supposed “outsiders”, and the so-called “loners” that newspapers like to identity when there’s a problem. Keith is an easily-identifiable target for them.
Thirty years after Lorna May’s passing, Peter and Ronnie meet up again at a funeral and try to arrive at an answer to the puzzle - how did Lorna May die? – and who was responsible? It also gives them an opportunity to reflect on what has happened in their lives in the intervening years. Ronnie, much to Peter’s surprise, has easily adjusted to contemporary society, and become well-established in his chosen profession.
John Lucas neatly establishes the larger background to the local incidents with occasional references to war-widows, British Restaurants, food rationing, clothing coupons, and the 1945 Election with its high hopes for a better world than the one that had existed for many people in the 1920s and 1930s.
It’s a situation I recognised from my own childhood, being around the same age as Peter in 1945. My father had served in the navy during and after the First World War and was too old for the Second, and the POWs I encountered were Italians who worked in the local mills. I have a vague memory, too, of being lined up with a little flag to see a convoy of shiny cars passing by, and a hand seeming to gesture by the window of one of them. The atmosphere Lucas creates seems real to me, as does the twinge of disappointment that Peter feels in 1976 at the failure of the dream (socialist for some, but perhaps only an undefined yearning for a fairer sort of society for many) that, for a short time, seemed to promise so much.
I enjoyed Summer Nineteen Forty-Five, and not just because it reminded me of my own early days. It would, perhaps, have had drawbacks as a novel had it only appealed to someone who can identify with the period it concerns. It’s a deftly-written book, and the kind of references I’ve remarked on are used in a sparing and relevant manner. It works on its own level as a social novel of real value that transcends decades to point to human behaviour generally in trying times.