Quiet country village. Rolling hills. Grazing sheep in pastures. Singing choir and church bells resounding out of the parish church.
Sound familiar? It’s the setting for many of the British stories that we love. Except this time, the story takes place during World War II, when most of the men in the community have left for battle, leaving the women at home to fend for themselves.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fast-paced story about a group of women who sing together, but it is more than that: the women are individuals who suffer, worry, and triumph through their separate experiences. One of the things that I find the most interesting about this book is this idea of the converse narrative. Most history book stories about WWII revolve around male narratives: men training, men fighting, men dying, men returning home. But a lot of the time (at least in the history I studied as a child), the female narrative is glossed over or left out entirely. Not so, in this book. Although it is a fictional narrative, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir reconstructs a female history of the war, covering the stories of many women of different ages, personalities, and social statuses. Put together, the book shines a light on the complexity of women’s lives during war time in the U.K. Jennifer Ryan does a good job of crafting a unique voice for each character, making it easy to follow along.
As a story of many stories, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is made of the narrations of many women through the form of letters and diaries. This not only makes the text easy to read, but also allows each woman to speak in her own voice.And voice is important in this story. 1940s Chilbury seems to be a culture in which women are supposed to be silent, or at least quiet, but these women sing to show their power and togetherness.
So here’s the gist (I will try to avoid too many spoilers):
World War II. England. Most of the men (at least the young ones) are gone to the Continent to fight the advancing German army. Meanwhile, in the small village of Chilbury, the vicar wants to close down the community choir because there aren’t enough male voices to keep it going. Through the instigation of a female music teacher, the women of the village step outside the norm to create an all-female choir.
Mrs. Tilling is a widow who lives alone now that her son David has gone to France. Being alone makes her ruminate on the danger her son faces. She’s quiet, known as a “do-gooder,” and can be a little curious about other people’s lives. As a nurse, she helps out when the army retreats from Dunkirk, gaining a close-up encounter with the fatalities of war. When she has to take in a seemingly cranky colonel under billeting, her internal world starts to come undone.
Edwina Paltry is something of an outsider. She claims to be a midwife and seeks to boost her clientele (and pocketbook) in the village. Edwina gives us a look at the hierarchical social class of the village, as she represents someone without property. Wanting to retake her childhood home where she dreams of living with her sister, she is willing to do whatever it takes to save up enough money to return. I won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say that it has something to do with baby-swapping.
Kitty Winthrop is thirteen years old but sees herself as much older than she is. She serves as an observing lens to the rest of the community because she’s a bit ignored. However, Kitty’s view of the world is a little skewed as she imagines things to be more than they are in reality: for example, a “proposal” by a handsome young man. At first, I was a little confused by Kitty’s section as the descriptions seemed extravagant and overdone, but once I realized her voice as a dramatic teen, it made sense, reminding me of my own diary at that age.
Venetia Winthrop is Kitty’s older sister at eighteen years old. She is rather a flirt, and likes the attention of the young men of the village (most of whom have now joined the army or air force). With all the young men gone, Venetia turns her attention to Mr. Alastair Slater, a mysterious artist who doesn’t reveal too much about his past. Venetia finds a satisfying independence in spending time with him, but if her father knew what she was up to, he might think it was a bit too much time.
Silvie is a little Jewish girl who has come to live with the Winthrops after escaping the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. As an evacuee, she left behind her family and all her belongings. She’s very quiet both in life, and in the narrative, but her character adds to the depth of female experience in Great Britain at the time.
Other characters include Prim, the inspiring choir leader; Elsie, the maid who knows too much; and Mrs. B who has the negativity of a Debbie Downer and the forceful stubbornness of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.
At times, because of its simply styled language and dialogue-driven plot, this book reads like a British miniseries, which was appealing to me, lover of the BBC. I’ve heard the television rights have been picked up by Carnival TV, so here’s to hoping it does get made.
I read this at a fitting time, I think, since I’ve been watching Land Girls, a TV show about women working for the British Women’s Land Army to produce food during WWII, and I just re-watched Atonement, one of my favorites, a film that connects the war to themes of family, love, and the power of words. So altogether, WWII has been on my mind, especially the non-battle stories of people who remained at home and fought metaphorical battles of their own.
Reading stories of hope and cooperation in the midst of danger and uncertainty is uplifting in times such as ours. As Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal: “Then we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other.”
Order your copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (released on February 14, 2017) here.Thank you to The Crown Publishing Group and Penguin Random House for providing this book for review.