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Sunday 12 August 2012

The Last Summer


This moving story opens in June 1914 - the beginning of the long hot Edwardian summer preceding the First World War.  Clarissa lives a life of luxury at Deyning, her family seat in Sussex: the youngest child and only daughter of wealthy parents, she spends her time playing tennis and croquet, painting, and wandering about the beautiful grounds, waiting to marry a suitable husband.  Her older brothers, up at Cambridge or Aldershot, appear occasionally at Deyning with their affluent, carefree friends; Clarissa longs to be part of their grown-up world, and is about to be sent to a Paris finishing school, when her father, hearing rumours of worrying events in Europe, decides to postpone her trip.

Tom Cuthbert is the son of the Deyning housekeeper, but is - somewhat mysteriously - a student at Oxford.  Down for the long vacation, he is immediately attracted to Clarissa and she to him, but both know that any relationship between them is impossible; Clarissa’s beautiful but remote mother is especially determined that her daughter must not become involved with someone who is ‘not one of us.‘  Clarissa and Tom meet fleetingly during the summer, but their worlds are torn apart by Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.  Tom, together with Clarissa’s brothers, enlist, and within weeks most of the young male population of the country has disappeared to France and Belgium.  Clarissa spends the rest of the war in London; her family suffers tragic losses, as do all the families she knows.  

In 1917, a wonderful and devastating event changes Clarissa’s life forever; the secret that this forces her to keep almost destroys her.   After the war, nothing is the same, and although some survive, they are irrevocably damaged; whilst some lose family fortunes, others, liberated from old social strictures, find huge success in a new world.  Will Clarissa break free from the role society has given her?  Will she ever find true happiness?  And what is the secret that her own mother is so anxious to keep?

Judith Kinghorn has written a novel that manages to tell a touching personal love story whilst also breathing life into a turbulent period of British history.  This is the story not only of two people kept apart by prejudice and snobbery, but also of the way in which the 1914-1918 war - now almost ancient history to our children - affected every man and woman, whatever their social background.  The reader is there on the terrace at Deyning, listening to the young men’s enthusiastic response to Lord Kitchener’s rallying calls, but she is also there at the London stations, when those same young men, blinded by mustard gas, hold on to one another as they stagger back to a very different world. 

As I closed this book, I felt both satisfied and exhausted - I had been on a journey with Clarissa, and she and her family and friends had become real to me: this, I think, is the mark of a good story well told.
Reviewed by Rosemary Kaye

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