The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Publishing Date: February 14
Genre: historical fiction
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 home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.
The women of Chilbury are saddened to hear their church choir’s been shut down by the Vicar, due to the lack of men. But when Primrose Trent, a music professor at the nearby university, comes to town, she forms the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and enlists them in a singing competition. Equally flustered and flattered, the women of Chilbury stand together as the war hits home, using music as a base and each other for comfort.
But with a cautious smile, I realized that there are laws against singing, and I found my voice becoming louder, in defiance of this war.
In defiance of my right to be heard.*
Anyone who is a member of a church choir — or any organization that tends to involve just one sex with a variety of ages — would thoroughly enjoy this book. The dynamics of the choir mirrored so many of my own experiences with my church choir, I could not stop laughing. (One particular character, Mrs. B, is so contrary about everything, and then tells people she knew Y would happen because X, which she previously wholeheartedly disliked, was just so amazing.) The women support one another, encourage one another, and sometimes butt heads with one another, but it’s the music, and the emotion behind it, that brings them together every week. It empowers them. It gives them a voice — a voice in a time when women didn’t really have one.
(Also, if you really love Doc Martin and village dynamics, you’ll find this to be a riot.)
What makes this unique is the way the story is told, and how much time it covers. It’s a WWII novel set in England focusing on a group of women (like Guernsey Literary), but it’s primarily focused on a village outside of Dover during the spring and summer months of 1940 (history buffs, you know that’s when Dover was attacked and Nazis began bombing England). It’s epistolary, though not entirely through letters (like Letters from Skye). There are primarily five perspectives, with up to eight occasionally, with three journal writers and two letter writers. You experience the war through five very different women of varying ages, who are themselves experiencing the war five different ways.
Two women in particular, Mrs Tilling and Venetia, had the most growth as characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed their stories. Mrs Tilling is a middle-aged woman whose husband died a few years previous and whose son heads off to war at the start of the novel. She feels voiceless, purposeless, and alone, even though she’s constantly providing medical aid as a nurse and midwife to the village and nearby city. Venetia is a spoiled aristocrat who just wants to have fun with men, and she can be quite a pill and very shallow at the beginning. But stick with her. She has quite the arc!
An enjoyable, refreshing read on an “old hat” topic in historical fiction. I loved how the author was able to fictionalize a particular aspect of that war (outside of women societies and music): the encouragement of the government for people to write letters and write in journals to document their everyday lives. Sometimes these were published in the papers so there was more than the war news covering the pages!
Sit back, relax, and laugh and cry and enjoy this good read.
Thank you, Edelweiss, for providing this book from Crown for review!
*quote taken from uncorrected proof