Cornell, Paul: British Summertime

An ideal beach read? Nothing so trivial

If you’re looking for something undemanding to while away a few lazy hours, move swiftly on. If you fancy something that will challenge you to pay attention from start to finish, seek this book out. If your taste is for a tale where the black hats are neatly lined up against the white hats by chapter three, you’re not going to like this. If you enjoy a story that has the conflicts, ambiguities and occasional downright nastiness of real life woven into its substance, this is a fine example.

Alison is an unremarkable girl, apart from her talents for unerringly finding chipshops and being both blessed and afflicted with a remarkable prescience. In one of several entertaining riffs on the usual uses of paranormal powers, she doesn’t use this to win huge amounts by knowing who’s going to win the Derby; Alison works in a betting shop herself. She’s the one who sets the odds. One of the odds she sets, for those punters who can’t resist it, is the price on the end of the world. As the book opens, this stands at 5000-1. Unfortunately, it’s not long before Alison sees those odds dropping, all the way down to evens.

Other people are involved in this developing crisis. There’s Alison’s pal, Fran, who finds something very nasty while going caving. There’s Leyton, a pilot from the future, where the technology for interstellar flight involves manipulating space-time. When the time bit of this goes awry, he crash-lands in early 21st century Dorset. His attempts to make sense of the present he finds himself in, compared to the history he recalls, are a most effective mix of prosaic detail, startling revelation and plain misunderstanding. After all, would you like to find yourself in the middle of D-Day with only the knowledge gleaned from watching Band of Brothers, The Longest Day and that film where the Yanks got to the Enigma machine first?

As a reader, you’ll be having to work as hard as Leyton at times, particularly when the differences in various timelines emerge and you try to unravel the paradoxes. Leyton’s ship’s navigator has to be very sure she doesn’t foul things up by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, which isn’t the easiest position to be in for a disembodied head. Pay attention and you’ll have the answers about half a page ahead of the text, but be prepared for those answers just to prompt more questions. I haven’t even mentioned the detours to the Crucifixion and speculation on just what Judas’s motives might have been. If you’re inclined to religious sensitivity, maybe you’d better avoid this book. If you’ve got an open mind, whatever your personal beliefs, you’ll find some thought provoking notions. If you’re squeamish, be warned, some biblical themes are approached in a very literal manner. There’s that line about “if thine eye offend thee…” for instance.

This is a book that takes some perseverance to read but not in the sense of having to overcome unnecessary obstacles due to poor writing or editing. It’s a challenge because it doesn’t just hand you the map in chapter one; you have to find your own way through the intricacies of the narrative which proceeds in relatively short passages and some rapid shifts of viewpoint, which incidentally may or may not be due to Paul Cornell’s experience as a screenwriter. You’ll be helped along the journey by a leavening of wry humour and I certainly consider the reward well worth the effort.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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