Book Review – The Summer Isles by Ian R MacLeod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An alternative history through the eyes of a gay Oxford don. The premise is that the Germans won the First World War, their March 1918 offensive succeeded and the war ended in the August with the defeat of France and Britain. The Peace Treaty strips Britain of a number of colonies and overseas territories in much the same way that the Germans were in our own history. Britain has a violent period in the 1920s and a former corporal, John Arthur, becomes the leader of a Modernist movement.
The story starts in the early part of 1940 when the Empire Alliance has been in power for at least a decade. A number of short victorious wars has restored much of the Imperial prestige lost at the end of the Great War. Although all seems harmonious it is a dangerous time to be different and not to look British. Geoffrey Brook (also Griffin Brooke) has found his way to be an Oxford Professor through his tenuous connection to John Arthur, the Prime Minister. Arthur mentioned Brook as an influence on his childhood when Brook taught him at school. Brook has no recollection of Arthur, but went along with it anyway.
Much of the story is told through flashbacks where Brook reminisces of things that have happened to him during his life. Realising that he is dying Brook resolves to find out what happened to a missing acquaintance of his, a Post Office Censor that he had illicit liaisons with in an allotment shed. One night his acquaintance disappears, Brook believes that it is because he is gay and worries that the Knights of Saint George (KSG) will be along soon to arrest him also. However it turns out that the acquaintance was married to a Polish Jew and the whole family has been taken because of that. With nothing really to lose Brook tries to find out where the Jews went, the newsreels said they went to the Summer Isles off the north of Scotland. However there has been no news since.
This is the story of a dying man coming to terms with his life, he feels inadequate intellectually and believes he’s only got to become an Oxford don because the better men have all been silenced by the Empire Alliance. He worries about the shallowness of his sexual life, and the fear that homosexuality being illegal means that he will be arrested and put in a camp for ‘treatment’. It’s worth noting that although there are necessary references there is nothing explicit here, the encounters are largely left to the reader’s imagination. The author clearly transmits an angst ridden guilt at making the best of each furtive encounter as Brook can never know when he’ll next meet someone suitable. There is also a loss of not being able to live life with a lover.
There are a number of inter-woven plot threads and this makes for a good story, there are a couple of bits where I guessed what was going to happen, and then was wrong. That made it more enjoyable. WHat I also enjoyed was how the author had taken the consequences of losing the Great War that German suffered and then mapped those on to Britain. Not all of them were completely identical, and it was those changes, making it more rationally British, that I enjoyed. I also wondered how long it would take you to realise that you were living in a fascist state if it slowly happened around you and you weren’t one of the people being targeted.
Overall both enjoyable and thought provoking.