REVIEW by Maya Wood

NWR Issue 101

That Burning Summer

by Lydia Syson

Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Peggy lives with her mother and younger brother on her uncle’s farm in Romney Marsh, near the Channel, where they moved after the war started. Her father supposedly joined the army but isn’t answering any of their letters, someone is sending nasty notes to her mother and meanwhile there’s the constant threat of German invasion. When a young Polish pilot named Henryk crashes his plane on the marsh, Peggy is the one to find him. This was the second book by Lydia Syson I’ve read and I loved both of them. I’m really looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

Both her novels are historical Young Adult fiction and it’s a genre the author does well; That Burning Summer has obviously been thoroughly researched and its historical aspects are very interesting. There’s a short afterword at the back explaining a little more about the period and both her novels are a fantastic introduction to the era in which they are set. I’d be lying if I said I knew a thing about the role of Polish pilots during the Second World War, and I enjoyed finding out!

Although Peggy is the story’s main protagonist, it is also told from the points of view of Henryk and Peggy’s younger brother, Ernest. I think this can sometimes be difficult to pull off but in this case it worked well, the characters’ voices being distinctive and recognisable. The characters themselves are well developed and interesting, and the way the reader is shown World War II from the eyes of a young boy, a teen and a pilot was wonderful for its different perspectives.

The threat of German occupation plays a significant role in the story. Situated on the East Kent coast, Romney Marsh would have been one of the first places to be invaded and this is something that affects all the characters. When it’s discussed, the characters tend to pass it off as a joke, yet they all worry in secret. In one scene, Peggy finds her mother in the vegetable garden burying a pot, a wedding present from Peggy’s father.

‘I’m hiding this. I don’t think we’ve got long now,’ she says. ‘I've got to keep it safe, if… when… it happens.’

At the beginning of the book is the first page of a leaflet issued by the Ministry of Information, entitled ‘If the Invader Comes’. It gives details on how to act should Germany invade, and one of the seven rules is used as a heading for each part of the book. Rule one, for instance, is: ‘If the Germans come, by parachute, aeroplane or ship, you must remain where you are. The order is “stay put”’. Ernest is only twelve but – probably due to his uncle’s efforts to make him ‘man-up’ – feels that he has a duty to protect his family and becomes very preoccupied with the leaflet. He frequently recalls the rules from it, and upon discovering Henryk, is convinced that he is a German spy and continues to distrust him through to the end, despite Peggy’s reassurances.

The romance in That Burning Summer was quite subtle and given plenty of time to build up slowly in a very sweet way. Although there weren’t actually very many scenes containing both Peggy and Henryk, it was a crucial part of the story and I think it was very well written.

I found the ending very abrupt – right in the middle of some action it all just stopped. However, the epilogue softened it a bit and overall, That Burning Summer was a lovely read. It’s the type of book that’s really nice to just curl up and relax with, and I think adults would enjoy it as well as teenagers. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, particularly to any fan of historical fiction. And if none of this has made you want to read the book, try this: it has a gorgeous cover that would undoubtedly look great on your bookshelf.

Maya Wood is a teenage book addict who reviews and blogs at The Book Nook


previous review: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air
next review: The North End of the Possible


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