At the centre of Rachel Billington’s new novel is love, but this is not in any conventional sense a romantic novel. Claudia, a schoolgirl, falls in love with a man 24 years her senior. He is not a romantic man, though given on occasion to the poetic flights of fancy associated with his chosen occupation, that of would-be writer. He is also married, though this, too, is a union lacking in romance: ‘Of love he did not think. He and Fiona were inextricably bound together. He could not imagine life without her and had no wish to try.’ Claudia, at 16, has few of the attributes of the romantic heroine save her youth and a talent for music: she plays the viola with passionate intensity. She enjoys solitude — ‘a trademark of [her] character’ — and is not beautiful. ‘She was nice-looking, nothing more. The sort of middle-class young woman you could meet all over the English home counties.’ During the summer of the novel’s title, Billington’s unlikely hero and heroine experience the transforming power of love. Their happiness is short-lived. It ends suddenly, dramatically and tragically. Its harrowing outcome colours them both ever after.
The action of the novel is divided between 1990 — the summer of love, told in the third person — and 2004, for the novel’s purposes the present day, related in first-person narratives by Claudia and her unromantic romantic hero, who calls himself K — inspired by Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and disguising his notably prosaic real name. The novel’s cast list is tiny: Claudia, her parents Catherine and Douglas, K and K’s wife Fiona, with fleeting appearances by Claudia’s friend Bella, her elder sister Louise and a small number of friends of K’s. The unrelenting narrowness of focus makes reading One Summer an intense, even a claustrophobic experience: there is no escape, no let up, no Shakespearean comic gravedigger to lighten the tension. Rather the progress of Claudia’s and K’s love — and the long-term psychological damage it wreaks — is anatomised minutely and with an absolute-seeming veracity by Rachel Billington. Such microscopic analysis, of course, is both a strength and a weakness: there is a sense in which the reader becomes as mired in suffering as Claudia and K, albeit in Billington’s hands the suffering is wholly plausible, wholly believable. From the novel’s outset we know that Claudia’s and K’s love is doomed; only much later do we discover how doomed. Briefly — and shockingly — Billington startles the reader with her dramatic romantic denouement, a scene of heightened emotionalism worthy of Iris Murdoch. For the most part she shuns grand effects, plotting the course of past love certainly and unhurriedly in prose that is supple and lyrical but never self-indulgent.
Despite the publisher’s pretty, light-looking dust jacket, One Summer is not an easy or a relaxing read. It contains passages of fine descriptive writing — notably concerning Valparaiso in Chile — but this is an austere, ultimately bleak novel that makes demands on its readers. Those who persevere and immerse themselves in its anatomy of ‘what makes two almost random people raise each other to the level of gods’ will consider themselves amply rewarded.