(Please note this review is for the novella, not the later novel of the same name.)
Ian R. Macleod’s 1998 The Summer Isles is the story of an aging homosexual man caught up in the politics of his time. Though set in the time between the world wars, there remains a lot about the novella the reader will not recognize. A work of alternate history commenting upon early- to mid-20th century British politics, the narrowness of the aim is more than made up for by Macleod’s quality prose, characters, and method.
At the outset of The Summer Isles, Griffin Brooke is drowning in self-pity. Hope for a meaningful relationship long lost, he takes a much bigger hit when told by his physician that terminal lung cancer will end his life much sooner than expected. The reader is thereafter tossed on the rapids of Brooke’s formative youth, the book he is thinking of writing, days with his first love, early professions, his present life as a professor at Oxford, his despair, as well as professional connections. Turbulent so say the least, the prognosis soon leads him to think of doing something rash. Fate intervening, Britain’s political situation takes on a new light.
Macleod critical of British political interests in the 20th century (and seemingly beyond), the story is set in a scenario wherein the Allies lose WWI. Britain aligning with totalitarian governments in the aftermath, the man who takes power, one John Arthur, comes down hard on all unconventional lifestyles and cultures, including homosexuality, Judaism, the Irish, and other social mores and cultural differences which fly in the face of British gentility and homogeneity. The decades preceding WWII used to spin Britain in a new direction, Macleod examines the idea of whether mankind makes history, or vice versa—an idea expressed when Brooke ponders the book he’s writing: “…Napoleon. Was he a maker of history, or was he its servant?” This dualism explored via story, Macleod’s conclusion is beyond trite. Subtly worked into Brooke’s situation and story, The Summer Isles possesses multiple layers of depth that reward upon re-reading.
If there is a problem with the novella, it would be that it begs to be expanded. Scenes, characters, thoughts, and conversations detailed enough to give the story chewable substance, there remains an expanse of story never touched, hanging just out of reach. The camps for Jews and Irish, Brooke’s childhood, his life as a teacher, and his attempts at writing are just some of the ideas that could be expanded to give the story a foundation that better supports the ideas being driven at. Though I have not read the novel length rendering Macleod made of the novella, I can only imagine given the man’s skills as a writer, the story does nothing but benefit.
In the end, The Summer Isles is a superbly written story that utilizes the life and memories of an elderly man to examine post-WWI Britain and whether history possesses agency. A deeper knowledge of English history adding depth to the novel, it remains wholly possible to enjoy the novella at a personal level; Brooke’s story is human, affective, and reflects Macleod’s thematic aims like a mirror. The Summer Isles carefully crafted, the prose and narrative structure intersect to present a high quality story that moves fluidly between time frames, and cuts to the bone of meaning in the choice of words. Likewise utilizing a non-linear format, the awards the novella won would seem well deserved and help to keep the standard for quality of writing in science fiction high.