As the years go by we lose generations of first hand experience. Despite the fact that we are busily commemorating the centenaries of various WWI battles there are now no veterans of that conflict left alive. Even those who remember that era from their childhoods are now centenarians (at least) so much of how we relate emotionally to that time comes from fiction and poetry. And many of the novels, in particular, are being written long after the fact, by authors who are having to use imagination, writing flair and vast amounts of research to bring those days to life. What becomes almost more shocking is the realisation that the number of World War II veterans is also depleting rapidly. I was born only twenty years after the end of hostilities – this is only the generation before me – and yet survivors are dying at the rate of over 500 per day. Most are over 90 so, if novelists are thinking of writing about the 1939-45 period using the first hand experiences of those who lived through it they’d better get a wriggle on. Or, possibly, like Chris Cleave did for Everyone Brave is Forgiven, recall all those talks they had with parents and grandparents.
Jennifer Ryan has used the experience and reminiscences of her grandmother (and the fascinating Mass Observation project started in 1939) to write her take on this period. On the face of it The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the story of how a choir, during the war when most of the men are called up to fight, learns to cope with just women’s voices but, of course it is about much more than that. As we learn about each of the key characters, a widow who is afraid of everything but mostly of losing her son to the war, a young woman who discovers there is something more important than being loved, a girl in a hurry to grow up but with no idea of what this really means and a refugee girl who just needs her family, we realise that while men are fighting the war it is the women who will make sure there is something worth fighting for. Each story, told through letters and journal entries, helps to develop the whole and each character has an individual voice.
This isn’t just a feel-good story about women pulling together in wartime. This does happen in the end, but there are also some very difficult subjects covered: abusive husbands and fathers, illegal abortion, blackmail, treason and loss. These are covered in unflinching detail but with great humanity – I was nearly in tears at more than one point because it really felt as if these events were happening to people I knew. Despite the traumatic events in the book I finished it feeling uplifted and positive. Not least because I knew that the lives of women, among others, would start to be changed for the better in the years that followed.