Following on from Lydia Syson’s award-winning debut, A World Between Us, and her second novel, That Burning Summer, comes another story of war-crossed young lovers. Set in 1871, at the time of the revolutionary commune of Paris, this proves an arresting setting for a romance between Anatole, a young violinist making his way in the theatre, and the newly bereaved Zéphyrine, an impoverished, fiery rebel. Worlds clash, and both must learn from the other. In a maelstrom of conflicting beliefs, is their love strong enough to survive war, betrayal and exile? The ending is hopeful but tantalisingly inconclusive.
This is a brilliant milieu for such a story, at a time and place that feel familiar – through stories of the French Revolution and Les Misérables – but which are both distinct and novel. Political ideas and agency are broached; themes of personal, class and gender liberation are all developed in an incident-packed plot. The main protagonists are faced with decisions of moral ambivalence relevant today. The burning of Paris may be an act of terror: if Zéphyrine was involved, can Anatole still love her?
This is a simply-written, well-paced novel, with a style that draws the reader in. The research has clearly been intense but is handled lightly throughout. Its depiction of young love captures both its clumsiness and its enchantment: ‘To be so close, to be able to say anything, to be caught in someone else’s eyes and breath like that.’ The writing depicts large-scale events clearly, and small details with sensual particularity: guilt makes Anatole feel ‘the silver matchbox … heating up in his hands.’
This novel is an unusual mixture of hard-hitting story-telling and subtle discourse on adolescence – and on the courage needed to face an uncertain world. Highly recommended for a young adult readership, 12-16 years.