It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.
He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.
It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.
It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…
Publisher and Release Date: FoxTales, November 2016
Time and Setting: Rural England, 1946
Genre: Historical Romance (m/m)
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars
Review by Em
Magical, romantic, suspenseful, and deeply moving, Harper Fox hits only high notes in Seven Summer Nights, setting the bar high for historical and queer romantic fiction. Ostensibly a love story about a forbidden romance, it’s also part fantastical mystery and suspenseful thriller. Secrets abound: men loving each other when homosexuality was a sin and homophobia rampant; a mysterious church with hidden pagan symbolism and villagers with old and closely held secrets; and a battlefield memory that threatens the life of our weary hero. All demand our attention, but Ms. Fox carefully and capably guides the reader to a satisfying conclusion. The village of Droyton Parva, an idealized imagining of rural country life and a character in and of itself, becomes the home you never knew you longed for. Interesting secondary characters, living in the village and its vicarage, are similarly well developed. The prose is lyrical, the principals are engaging, and the multifaceted story is romantic, compelling and thrilling.
Rufus Denby is a devastated and lonely shell of the man he was before the outbreak of WWII. Once a famed archaeologist, he’s now a decorated war veteran slowly losing his will to live. Shell-shocked since his last horrific moments on the battlefield, Rufus struggles to remember his last moments in the trenches at Fort Roche, and to control recurrent and uncontrollable violent outbursts. After a recent ‘episode’ on an excavation site he only vaguely remembers, and a brief hospitalization, Rufus is back in London. A no-nonsense but sympathetic supervisor gently lets him go, then suggests he go to see her cousin, a vicar, in Droyton Parva. The church is falling apart and requires extensive renovation, but the vicar believes ancient artwork inside might be archaeologically significant. Perhaps Rufus could visit the church and determine whether it’s worth preserving? Nearly destitute, bewildered by his life, lonely, sad and desperate, Rufus heads to Droyton.
The vicar was right about the church. Unable to locate him at the vicarage, Rufus visits on his own and recognizes its paintings are archaeologically significant, but the symbolism is confusing. Willing to wait to speak to the vicar, an exhausted Rufus falls asleep in the choir loft. His sleep is interrupted by visions of a naked woman being chased through the woods… but when Rufus awakens, he isn’t sure if the dream was real. Unable to trust his own mind and feeling like he might be losing it, he sets off to find the vicar.
Reverend Archie Thorne returned to rural Sussex after the war, but lost his faith along the way. A motorcycle-riding chaplain in wartime, Archie lives a full and purposeful life in Droyton, but though his home and parish keep him busy, he’s lonely. Warm and loving, he has a habit of collecting the waifs and strays of the village, and spends afternoons trying to keep the church from falling into ruin and caring for his flock… while frequently sneaking away to work on his motorcycle and have a smoke. When Rufus finally tracks him down and introduces himself as the archaeologist sent by his cousin, Archie recognizes a kindred lost soul. He’s also intensely attracted to his handsome visitor. Long repressed desire flares to life, and despite the societal danger attached to falling for another man, Archie finds himself irresistibly drawn to Rufus, and sets out to collect him, too.
Rufus is also attracted to the handsome vicar but carefully conceals it. A failed pre-war relationship (reader: I’m massively understating this) has taught him to be cautious, though the more time he spends with Archie, the more he wants him. When Rufus finally makes a subtle pass at him, he’s rewarded and charmed by Archie’s exuberant and enthusiastic response. A tender and affectionate romance blossoms, but to Rufus’s chagrin and secret pleasure, an eager (and lustful) Archie often forgets the dangers inherent in their relationship. The village, the household and the parish are ever underfoot, and with Rufus’s warning in mind, the beginning of their relationship is marked by passionate, frantic and furtive couplings. Archie knows Rufus continues to suffer the sins of his past and that the trauma of his life as a soldier still torments him, and Rufus senses their relationship soothes something dark in Archie’s history. Their love is deeply passionate and profoundly moving, and Ms. Fox ‘s prose shines whenever they are together on the page.
I want to tell you more about this charming pair, but though the central relationship is rich and satisfying, there’s so much more to Seven Summer Nights. Rufus and Archie spend their days in the church trying to discern the meanings behind the ancient (pagan?) artwork and discerning if there’s something hidden deep beneath the church itself. This mystery, with roots deep in Droyton’s past, is both fascinating and creepy. But Ms. Fox doesn’t rush the narrative and she slowly parcels the truth out bit by bit via discoveries at the church and in telling revelations about Droyton’s villagers. The unraveling of the church’s history and the labyrinth below it mirror the slow unraveling of the chaos in Rufus’s mind. That slow and painful disentangling, and Rufus’s frustrating inability to remember events on the battlefield at Fort Roche, set up the third and thrilling narrative – Rufus’s war experience and its aftermath.
From the opening chapters of the novel, Ms. Fox imbues Rufus’s fearful forgotten last moments on the battlefield with darkness and despair. As Rufus struggles to remember (or forget?) what happened, allegations arise against Rufus’s superior, his deceased brother-in-law, Charles, who served with him on the front. Rufus is the only one who can corroborate the allegations, but Charles’s father, Brigadier Spence,with whom Rufus’s sister Rosemary still lives, will do anything to preserve England’s heroic version of his son.
Shortly after an ill-timed visit from his sister Rosemary, Rufus is (falsely) accused of a violent crime he can’t remember committing. Desperate and convinced he must be guilty, Rufus flees Droyton, sacrificing himself to Brigadier Spence and the asylum (it’s anything but) he established for injured war veterans. Rufus’s escape, the asylum, Archie’s tortured realization when he realizes where he’s gone…it’s awful and heart wrenching. It’s impossible to delve too deeply into this juicy bit of storytelling without spoiling it, suffice it to say, any doubt either man had about their love for each other, or the power of that love to transcend their darkest, most profoundly humbling moments, are laid to rest in several brilliant, heart stopping chapters. Afterwards, the novel resumes its almost leisurely ebb and flow as Rufus and Archie solve the mysteries of the church and its significance among the villagers.
Seven Summer Nights is the compassionate and redemptive tale of two men trying to heal after the horrors of war. Harper Fox deftly weaves a powerful anti-church, anti-establishment message throughout the novel – the message is powerful, yet subtle. Profoundly moving, enchanting and charming, this is a novel that stays with you long after you finish it.
Can falling in love restore lost faith and heal a tortured soul? The answer, after reading this beautiful, poignant novel, is a resounding yes.