REVIEW: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan
“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”
As England enters World War II’s dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to shutter the church’s choir in the absence of men and instead “carry on singing.” Resurrecting themselves as “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir,” the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit– a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past– we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir’s collective voice reverberates in her individual life. In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the homefront, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.
Dear Ms. Ryan,
I’ve loved the mystery series “Foyle’s War” and recently I watched the first season of “Home Fires” a British historical drama set during the opening days of World War II in a small town in northern England which tells the story of the women left to keep the home fires burning while their men are at war. There is drama, scandal, secrets, heartache, social maneuvering, and love galore as the townsfolk deal with their personal issues against the backdrop of the opening months of the war. Long held conventions are overturned, modern sensibilities begin to emerge and the social pecking order might be in for a dramatic overhaul. When I saw this book on offer, I hoped it might be a literary version of these shows.
The book begins during the waning months of the “phony war” just before the Nazis invaded Belgium, Holland and then France. Chilbury has already lost one of her own though, the only son – who by all accounts, including his sisters, was a horrific beastly terror – of a prominent local family. As the funeral proceeds, all realize that this is probably only the beginning as several local sons will soon be shipped off to France or will be reporting to airbases around Britain. But what really ruffles feathers is the notice from the Vicar that the church choir will be shut down for the duration due to the men being gone.
Outrage ensues on one end of the spectrum as a women only choir would flout tradition while the other end timidly wonders if it’s not for the best for morale to try something new. The mice win over the booming know-it-all and thus begins the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
As the spring ends and summer begins, the war heats up and as the village is in Kent, preparations for possible invasion begin as they watch the planes heading off and dogfights being fought over Dover. Meanwhile the soap operatic goings-on around the village kick in. Sweet, venal, sophomoric, mean, determined and/or oblivious – the characters we’ve gotten to know through their letters or diaries go about “carrying on” in the face of aerial bombing, evacuations from Dunkirk and death.
I wanted to love this book much more than I ultimately did. The setting is well done and there is a wide range of characters but at times I had to go back to see just whose letter or journal entry I was reading as many of the “voices” sound the same. I guess given that many are from the same village and are of the same social class and age it makes sense but they due tend to blur together. But they all also write in artistically literary terms which at first read well but after a while I began to doubt that anyone churning out a daily diary would be quite so descriptive and use so many adjectives and adverbs.
There are a lot of subplots and intrigue and drama but with the sheer number of events to be packed into the story, it seemed as if each one was only briefly touched on before the story had to march on to the next thing. I was left feeling like I’d only seen the Movietone newsreels. And of course all the events had to serve to Make A Point about human nature, resilience or whatever. Each denouement had to be capped with an introspective, reflective moment on someone’s part. I did want to know what happened next and finished it fairly quickly but it’s also fairly predictable. C+