The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Crown, 2017. Hardcover, 384 pages.
Written in the tradition of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (reviewed last week), The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir in an epistolary novel set in World War II Great Britain. Unlike Guernsey, Chilbury is set on mainland England in a small village in Kent.
As the novel opens, full out war has not yet begun. War was declared, but the Nazi’s have not yet invaded western Europe or begun air attacks on England. The majority of men have been drafted for war work and it has left just the women in Chilbury. One of the consequences is that the village choir has to close. However, the women, in an act of defiance and solidarity have resurrected it as a women-only group. This is the story of those women. We will see Prim, who leads the newly formed choir. One of Prim’s key sopranos is Kitty, a young teenager who is on the cusp of adulthood. Kitty is joined by Venetia, her sister who is working for the war office and discovering love in wartime, and their foster sister, Sylvie, an evacuee from Czechoslovakia. The key alto is Mrs. Tilling, who also serves as the billeting official and a registered nurse. Then there is Hattie, a friend of Venetia’s who is expecting her first child. Lastly, the female cast is rounded out the often overbearing Mrs. Brampton-Boyd and with Kitty and Venetia’s mother. Each faces their own personal struggles alongside those of the group as a whole.
And the men are not left completely out. There are several in supporting roles. Venetia falls in love with Alistair Slater, a painter exempt from war work. Kitty and Venetia’s father, the Brigadier, organizes the local militia. Colonel Mallard is a officer at the local intelligence installation and is billeted with Mrs. Tilling. Tom, a boy Kitty’s age, is helping to pick crops over the summer. There are also several reoccurring younger men as they visit home from the war: Henry Brampton-Boyd, David Tilling, and Ralph Gibbs.
As the war turns from the fabled “Phony War” to all out war, the ensemble cast will show what life was like during the Battle of Britain. How will they band together to help make life easier? Who will survive as air raids become more common? What other activities are going on that may affect them all? Read and find out.
Unlike Guernsey, with its lightheartedness and defiance of its Nazi occupiers, Chilbury is a much darker novel. It deals with the struggles of life for the women on the home front and their fears. One cannot but help to feel what the characters feel, whether that be their darkest worries or their hopes for things to come. And life is not all fun and games, but one of daily struggles, regardless of class, brought on by the war. While there are a few predictable storylines (Mrs. Tilling’s dealings with both Mrs. Paltry and Colonel Mallard), others kept you guessing (Alistair’s role in the story). As a whole, the novel was filled with rich details and its tales hook a reader in; once you start this novel, you will not want to put it down.
Do you think you will give this novel a try? Do you have another novel to recommend set during the Phony War or Battle of Britain?
This review is based on an advanced reader edition provided by the publisher. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will be released on 2/14/17.