REVIEW: The Midnight News by Jo Baker
It is 1940 and twenty-year-old Charlotte Richmond watches from her attic window as enemy planes fly over London. Still grieving her beloved brother, who never returned from France, she is trying to keep herself out of trouble: holding down a typist job at the Ministry of Information, sharing gin and confidences with her best friend, Elena, and dodging her overbearing father.
On her way to work she often sees the boy who feeds the birds—a source of unexpected joy amid the rubble of the Blitz. But every day brings new scenes of devastation, and after yet another heartbreaking loss Charlotte has an uncanny sense of foreboding. Someone is stalking the darkness, targeting her friends. And now he’s following her.
As grief and suspicion consume her, Charlotte’s nerves become increasingly frayed. She no longer knows whom to trust. She can’t even trust herself . . .
Utterly riveting and hypnotic, The Midnight News is a love story, a war story, and an unforgettable journey into the fragile mind and fierce heart of an extraordinary young woman.
CW – 1940s era treatments in a mental asylum, violent attempted sexual assault, violent deaths in the blitz are alluded to, suicidal thoughts and, (spoiler)
Dear Ms. Baker,
It’s been ten years since I read “Longbourn,” but finally I’ve read another of your books. The blurb was intriguing and yet also fairly vague. To be honest, what got me interested in reading it were two rather silly things: it’s not in any way related to books (bookshop or librarian) and there are no planes on the cover, flying over the blitzed buildings. I’m sure I will read WWII set books in the future with either or both of these things but it’s such a relief to skip them for once.
The story begins in the Autumn of 1940 with long time best friends Charlotte and El meeting up. Charlotte pushes for them to do something that evening but El pulls back and claims a prior commitment will keep her busy but tomorrow they can meet up for “gin and confidences.” When Lotts follows up and goes to El’s family’s house, the maid informs her that El isn’t available – none of the family are available. Charlotte’s next stop is to her godmother’s luxurious flat, where, like with a butler at a house she often visits, Charlotte knows the doorman’s name, only to find that sapphic Saskia has a new lover. Charlotte soon flees the uncomfortable atmosphere as Sas and Mary Clarke are obviously in the middle of a spat.
Uppercrust Charlotte dislikes being around her family – her overbearing father, her snobbish stepmother, and her managing older married sister. She now lives in a boarding house in a working class area but sometimes can’t avoid her father who has always made Charlotte feel inadequate. One bright spot is a young man, Tom, she often sees feeding the birds in a park. As the German bombs begin to rain down on the city each night, Charlotte realizes that several of her friends, along with a coworker, plus an old school acquaintance have all died “in the blitz.” There’s also a strange man she keeps seeing near her boarding house and where these people lived. Are these things somehow connected?
Some things to mention first. Please check out the CWs above. Charlotte has been consigned by her family to an asylum before though it’s not entirely clear if this is due to actual mental health issues or because her family (her father, really) think Charlotte is “being a nuisance.” She and her godmother might make jokes and call it the “loony bin” but what happened to her there causes Charlotte to fear ever going back. As her friends die, Charlotte begins to “hear” them, in her head, speak to her and respond to her thoughts including one memorable “conversation” when (paraphrased) El asks Charlotte “don’t you think it’s strange that I died in the blitz and I didn’t have a mark on me?” There is an attempted sexual assault when Charlotte is out during the blitz.
Another thing some readers might not care for is that the story is told in third person, present tense. However this makes the book come alive for me and feel very “immediate.” Charlotte is not without her flaws. There are things that she does, or rather that she really doesn’t “think through.” At one point, she talks about going back to her old lodgings and has to have it pointed out to her that for (very good) Reasons, she can’t. Then when she requests to go to a different specific place, she realizes too late that she shouldn’t have. But then she’s only twenty and has just been through a horrible experience so I could cut her some slack.
Charlotte is the daughter of a baronet and knows her upper-class world. At one point she tells her landlady (whom Charlotte likes very much but whom one of Charlotte’s friends referred to as a hobgoblin) and the other boarder that an author they’re reading is an Old Girl – ie, a former student at the exclusive boarding school Charlotte attended. The way she speaks sets her apart from the young man who has noticed her in the park. Her godmother is also a terrible snob who makes a sniffy reference about all the Jewish refugees arriving in England. As distasteful as this is, I believe it to be characteristic of their class then. Meanwhile Tom, who has a physical disability, faces his own challenges as a working class man trying to escape to a better future which keeps being thwarted by the bombing of the buildings at the college that has offered him a scholarship.
I got lost in the effortless details of living through wartime London. Certain areas are hit hard while others are barely scratched. Baths are not only restricted but also lukewarm, undertakers worry about the foreseen lack of coffins, walking at night is hazardous not only because of the German bombs but also due to having to use torches and dodge debris. People quickly sort out what items are essential to take with them to shelter. Getting stuck out in the open when the air raid sirens sound means seeking any shelter you can find and possibly being stuck all night in a close quarters fug with strangers.
But, as much as I enjoyed the historic details and “feel,” there are times when the plot seemed to nearly spin out of control and other times when I felt adrift with no road signs to point me in the right direction. There is a clue
“The Midnight News” is a very atmospheric story with interesting characters. It’s a historical, a mystery, a social commentary, a gut wrenching expose of the horrors of mental health treatments, and a romance. Yes, there is a romance here. I desperately wanted to keep reading and also to figure out how all the scattered pieces were going to fit together. They do and it all makes sense but the resolution is more “ah, okay” rather than “AHA!” Also it gets great bonus points from me because Charlotte has the guts, chutzpah, and intelligence to physically defend herself when she needs to and also see and seize opportunities to turn things in her favor. The main issues are resolved; the ending is HFN but I feel that Charlotte’s life is going to be okay from here on out. B