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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-12-05
- Reviewer: Staff
In 1940, at a time when womens roles were still firmly rooted in home and hearth, the ladies of Chilbury, England, find themselves at the bleeding edge of progress as the ramifications of World War II begin to infiltrate their little town. The men of Chilbury head to battlefields, and the village choir becomes the first casualty of the war. When a female professor of music insists the choir can be reassembled as a ladies choir, the small community is at first scandalized by such an idea. But this is soon lost to other more salacious events. There is the brigadier who hires an unscrupulous midwife to swap his baby girl for a boy, and his teenage daughter seduces a handsome artist whos come to town under mysterious circumstances. An upstanding single woman (a widow whose only son has gone to fight) is tapped to take a colonel into her home, and a 10-year-old Czech evacuee finds out what happened to her family. As the war advances on Chilbury, even more lives are changed when a German bomb kills a young mother as well as the choir mistress, young men are sent off to war, and spies and black market profiteers lurk in the quiet lanes. Told in the form of diaries and letters in the voices of the female characters, Ryans novel, reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, captures the experience of the war from a womans perspective. Readers may have come across this kind of story before, but the letter/diary format works well and the plot elements satisfyingly come together. (Feb.)
The women left behind
Despite its pastoral title, Jennifer Ryan’s compelling and exquisitely wrought World War II-era novel is far removed from the stereotypical cozy British village story. Rooted in the bucolic countryside of Kent, the novel is told in a series of letters and journal entries penned by an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom are members of their village’s first ladies’ choir—a musical distinction born of necessity rather than choice.
Indeed, with the village’s sons, brothers, husbands and lovers heading off to join the war effort, Chilbury is virtually absent of men. For the women they have left behind, the emotional burdens to be borne include the lonely widow Mrs. Tilling’s fears for the safety of her only son; village beauty Venetia Winthrop’s illicit romance with an enigmatic artist; intrepid musical prodigy Kitty’s ill-fated attempts to gain attention; and the haunted Jewish refugee Silvie’s harboring of a family secret.
While the poignant narratives that unfold in each letter and journal entry are imbued with the struggles of a town reeling from the ravages of yet another war, the bleakness is tempered by romance, mystery and even crime—in particular, a daring act of deception performed by Miss Edwina Paltry, a conniving member of the Winthrops’ household staff.
Readers will be delighted to hear that the television rights to this splendid novel have already been optioned by Carnival TV—the production company behind “Downton Abbey.” With The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Ryan has crafted a riveting debut novel that is certain to resonate with readers on both sides of the pond.