Friday 13 December 2013

Past on Paper - 1940s Review - 'That Burning Summer', Lydia Syson (Hot Key Books, 2013)

Romney Marsh, July 1940. When invasion threatens, you have to grow up quickly. Sixteen-year-old Peggy has been putting on a brave face since the fall of France, but now the enemy is overhead, and the rules are changing all the time. Staying on the right side of the law proves harder than she expects when a plane crash-lands in the Marsh: it's Peggy who finds its pathetic, broken pilot; a young Polish man, Henryk, who stays hidden in a remote church, secretly cared for by Peggy. As something more blossoms between the two, Peggy's brother Ernest's curiosity peaks and other secrets come to light, forcing Peggy and Henryk to question all the loyalties and beliefs they thought they held dear. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Quick warning: the odd spoiler on the horizon folks...

That Burning SummerWith that amazing title and a synopsis that strongly hints of a secret wartime love affair, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this book is an out-and-out romance. Ok, it is a bit of an out-and-out romance, but as much as I adored this particular relationship and the mammoth objects put in its path, the thing I took away was a different sort of fire - having the strength to cope with the day-to-day realities during some of the most difficult and tense events in history.

As with her previous book, Syson's writing takes a particular point and place in the past and opens it up in a way I don't think I've come across in YA before. All the research and attention to detail is evident, yet it never feels like you're sitting through a history lesson. Or maybe just like you're experiencing the best history lesson ever. This book not only sheds light on the contribution of Polish pilots to the war effort, but also the story of those who chose to stand by their pacifist principles in the face of overwhelming pressure and the ripple effects this had on their families. I was initially a bit apprehensive about the large part Peggy's younger brother Ernest appeared to be playing in the story ( just wanted to get to the kissing bits to be honest), but his journey and how this tallied with Henryk's experiences, ended up being my favourite part of the book. This is a tale about a different sort of war time bravery - of coping with overwhelming mental as well as physical hurdles as well as standing up for beliefs in the face of public opinion and convention. But with all the complex issues floating about, there is still a strong and powerful chemistry between Peggy and Henryk that was a  joy to read. Some of the scenes actually made my page CRACKLE, I swear. 

As with all the best historical fiction, this provides a new perspective on a period that has been depicted on paper many, many times before. It's a very welcome addition to the growing number of YA books set during this period that I've had the pleasure to read in the last couple of years. Not only does it make you think AND swoon, but there's also does a rather good sideline in suspense too. Oh, and the cover's ace as well. Seriously, what more could you want? 

If it turns out you DO want more, then have a read of my interview with Lydia Syson in which she discusses writing historical young adult fiction and the presence of politics in YA. You're welcome.

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