The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod
There’s a long tradition of alternate history novels, sometimes marketed as science fiction and sometimes not. Many are pure what-ifs having a bit of fun exploring what might have been. Some, however, explore the world we have through the funhouse mirror of the world we could have had.
The Summer Isles is a novel of a fascist Britain. I read it in the run up to the present US elections, shortly after our own Brexit vote. It’s a timely moment for this sort of book, but perhaps too timely to make it entirely enjoyable.
Brooke is a sixty-something Oxford history don in 1940s Modernist England. He’s a mediocre talent brought to prominence by his once having taught John Arthur, Britain’s prime minister and beloved leader, the architect of Britain’s Modernist renaissance and recovery from post-Great War ruin. John Arthur praised Brooke, or Brook as he accidentally called him, in his memoirs and that was enough for just a little of Arthur’s glamour to rub off on him.
John Arthur’s Britain is a gleaming and successful place. Portraits of John Arthur are everywhere, gazing down from offices and public lavatory walls alike. The trains are clean and they run on time. The country’s become something of an international pariah, but who cares when it’s recovered its prosperity and pride?
Brooke has found his own cosy Oxford nook and learned to forget inconvenient facts and to ignore inconvenient questions. He mostly doesn’t even correct the frequent misspelling of his name, accepting Arthur’s version as somehow supplanting the original. He reflects that “As easily as some faintly flavoured and not entirely disagreeable medicine, my whole life was already slipping by.”
Then come two crises. The first isn’t wholly unexpected. Brooke is gay and that is of course quite illegal, and in John Arthur’s Britain punished by mandatory cures and possible disappearance. He meets his lover, a married man, via a public toilet where each of them marks the wall to signal their availability and chosen meeting spot. One day his lover has left his mark on the wall, but doesn’t turn up to their rendezvous. Something has clearly happened to him.
The second crisis is less predictable. Brooke’s been unwell for a while now, but a trip to the doctor leads to visits to consultants and in less time than he’d have dreamt possible a terrible diagnosis:
“As I was saying, Brooke, I’ve been following your case, and giving it quite a lot of thought. Outwardly, you’re still in good enough health. I can see that. But as I think I explained, this tumour in your right lung has been growing for some time. With the problem of metastasis—I mean, of course, lymphatic spread—I really don’t think that there’s any need to operate.”
Not even any need for an operation! A stupid bubble of joy rises up from my stomach, then dissolves.
I’m very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into the sunlight. I’m even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year’s Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that’ll last you through next winter.
Somehow, I hadn’t realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.
I feel so angry.
The Summer Isles is shot through with melancholy and regret. Brooke has bargained away his life as has his Britain, both in thrall to a man who redefined them to his own design. Brooke decides to find out what happened to his lover, and so accidentally sets himself on a path to the heart of Modernist Britain.
Here he has found his lover’s house and asks a neighbour what happened to the family. The neighbour explains that the wife was Polish, then continues:
“Yes. And a few of them over here—it’s understandable that they want to come, isn’t it—just as long as they don’t make themselves a burden, earn a decent living, talk like we do and don’t bother our children and keep themselves to themselves and make a proper effort to fit in.”
“So what was the problem?”
“She was a Jew, wasn’t she. All these years they’ve been living next door and acting all normal and hiding it from us. I mean, it’s the deceit I really can’t stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on.” Mrs. Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. “To think of it. It’s the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew.”
Modernism needed someone to blame for the country’s disappointments. Immigrants, Jews, they made good culprits. The Jews were relocated to the far north, to Scotland’s Summer Isles where they were reportedly given pretty whitewashed houses and where nobody ever heard from them again. They were tempted there by:
Government leaflets with titles like What To Do If You’re A Jew (report straightaway to the Duty Sergeant at your local Police Station—“don’t worry, he’ll have dealt with your problem many times before”)
But if the leaflets didn’t tempt enough they were moved there all the same.
Brooke’s lover and his family have now been sent to the same location, and Brooke decides to take some long-overdue leave and follow the footsteps of an old holiday he took thirty years past with the great love of his life: a trip around Scotland in which they’d meant to visit the Summer Isles but had never quite made it as the war intervened and Brooke’s lover returned home to sign up. This time Brooke plans to complete the journey.
Brooke has no idea what may have happened in the Summer Isles and is mystified when he reaches Scotland and finds that nobody admits any memory of the Jews passing through and that the islands themselves are no longer even shown on local maps. Of course, as readers we have a pretty good idea what’s happened because we know our own real history. Brooke becomes more interested in his own past and his memory of his lost love than the absent islands and forgotten Jews, and frankly I thought this a better book for not showing what the reader can imagine all too well.
On his return Brooke finds the past returned in more immediate form: the tenth anniversary of John Arthur’s rule is fast approaching as is John Arthur’s fiftieth Birthday and John Arthur has personally asked that Brooke be invited to the celebrations at Number 10. It occurs to Brooke that after all these squandered years this could be an opportunity to finally make a difference. If one man had killed Napoleon early on what harm would Europe have been spared? If one man kills John Arthur, what harm might Europe yet be spared?
I won’t go into what happens, not least as the solidly executed plot is the least interesting part of the book. I loved MacLeod’s characterisation of Brooke himself, not so much a has-been as a never-really-was but who retains a quiet humanity regardless. Now he’s John Arthur’s personal guest he finds himself sought after by Oxford’s ambitious dean and invited to exclusive parties. Sadly for Brooke, while he was never quite brilliant enough to have won his way to his Oxford position on his own he’s more than clever enough to see the truth of his shabby world and the compromise he’s made of his life.
MacLeod’s vision of a fascist Britain also persuades. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of place, quickly turning when fuelled with drink to just plain aggressive. Ugliness is kept behind the scenes. Torture is carried out in ordinary looking office buildings. John Arthur promised certainty to people who felt left behind by history, and for that his followers were prepared to believe anything:
After the confusions and disappointments of their lives, these poor and jobless men were desperate to be told that, yes, it was all quite simple.
Besides, what he tells them is what they secretly wanted to believe anyway:
… all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.
There’s even at times a rather British sense of humour to it all. It’s a quiet novel which fits because it’s an exploration of how fascism may manifest differently in different countries but of how the same underlying ugliness remains. We look at the trappings of other countries’ insanities – of 1930s Germany or McCarthyite America – and we say to ourselves “that couldn’t happen here, that’s a product of their history, their culture” but all we’re doing is confusing the cosmetic for the actual. If it happens to us it won’t wear the same clothes or shout the same slogans, but that doesn’t make us immune.