So many words come to mind when I think of Jennifer Ryan‘s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir: cozy, delightful, warm, heartbreaking, empowering—a refreshing addition to the canon of World War II literature. Those destructive years are parsed out in countless novels, biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction accounts of the war, but very rarely does a book approach it quite the way Ryan’s novel does.
Through journal entries and letters from nearly a dozen residents of Chilbury, Ryan pieces together a beautiful mosaic of a small, English village coping with the start of a war they do not yet know the scope of. Each perspective gives a glimpse of the town’s changing culture as most of the men are called to combat and the entitlement of the area’s landed gentry becomes less and less powerful in the wake of the war’s increasing carnage.
The novel’s major players include Mrs. Tilling, a middle-aged nurse whose son has just been sent to the front, Venetia Winthrop, a coquettish eighteen-year-old intent on wooing a handsome artist, Kitty Winthrop, Venetia’s thirteen-year-old sister who aspires to become a famous singer, and Edwina Paltry, a midwife of dubious moral character. Their stories weave together to build the fabric of a story that encapsulates the rapidly changing landscape of rural England.
In the novel’s beginning, no one believed the war is going to last more than a few months–no one believes this war will reach the hellish proportions of the “Great War” just a couple decades earlier. They soon see, however, that the Germans are determined to swallow up as much of Europe as they can, and the coast near Chilbury becomes a particularly dangerous area, susceptible to an air raid at any moment.
Ryan chooses to keep The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir on the lighter side of World War II fiction. Chilbury’s women must take over the jobs and tasks that the men in their town have left behind, but their parish vicar still wants to bring an end to the church choir, believing that it couldn’t possibly go on without male vocalists. But a newcomer by the name of Prim–a professor of music at Litchfield University–won’t have any of it. She rallies the town’s women together, and they form The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
As the choir grows in confidence, so do each of its performers, especially Mrs. Tilling, who, up until then, has been trapped by her own fear and the need to help others more than herself. Though her caring nature continues to grow throughout the novel, she also becomes assertive; she refuses to let people take advantage of her and does what she can to protect the innocent people around her who are trapped by the whims of men who hate women.
Ultimately, that is Ryan’s overarching theme–the strength of women in the face of certain destruction. She weaves issues of class, wealth, reproductive rights, and homosexuality into the fabric of this theme, but it is first and foremost a novel meant to celebrate the contributions of women who do everything they can to help the people around them during times of great crisis.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in the early years of the war read this book because it has the advantage of bringing together some of the time period’s most compelling developments. It is also hopeful, which cannot be said for many things these days. I was saddened when I finished the book because I wanted badly to hold onto the book’s narrative of personal growth, which is told with a warmth that is hard to create without veering into the maudlin.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is lovely, witty, and moving, but most importantly, it’s absolutely unputdownable.