Author: Jennifer Ryan | Publisher: The Borough Press
Kent, 1940. In the village of Chilbury, the vicar closes the choir after the men leave for the front, and the women take umbrage…
… until the arrival of music professor Primrose Trent, that is.
With her encouragement they resurrect themselves as The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, find unity and strength in music, and support each other through heartbreak and turmoil when the war lands on their very own doorstep. But when some are trying to sabotage the choir from the inside, is song alone enough to stop this community tearing itself apart?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It was heartwarming, poignant, and beautifully crafted. Jennifer Ryan doesn’t shy away from the darker realities of war on the Home Front, but has a light touch which ensures the book isn’t bogged down in misery. And she expects nothing less from her characters, who are almost universally brave, funny, and kind.
I would normally avoid books written entirely in the form of diaries and letters, but here it absolutely worked. It gave the characters voices of their own, allowing the reader to see multiple sides of their personality, and the book’s humour was often found in their lack of self-awareness. Even the less appealing characters had, if not redeeming features, a sense of humanity. No individual is truly good or bad, but rather the sum of their experiences. There was a magical quality to the omniscient knowing of Primrose Trent, which reminded me of some of the best of Joanne Harris’ work. And Ryan never let the rest of her cast off the hook, posing them challenges to which they were expected to rise; and they did. This book is entirely character-driven, and the tension arises from their individual struggles. I enjoyed watching them grow into fully realised and well-rounded individuals, as they were marked and changed by their experiences.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is a series of intertwined sub-plots, held together loosely by a sense of community and purpose. The pastoral scene, with its dark undertones, only underscores the bleak realities of war, and this, in turn, is used to subtly raise issues which remain relevant in our own times. It was cleverly political, without being overtly moralising. I also liked the authenticity of basing the characters and stories on real events, and real diaries published at the time. The historical accuracy and the textural details gave the book a unique flavour, and a keenly felt sense of time and place. There was a comforting Agatha Christie-esque familiarity to some of the character tropes, and a Jacqueline Winspear quality to the descriptions of Kent hop picking and rural 1930s scenes. It was a pleasant blend of the familiar and the unique.
The book carries some big themes. It seems to say that we have something to learn from looking back. In a time of enormous struggle and national grief, we found the best of ourselves; have we forgotten our values, and the value of community, in today’s digital world?
My one criticism would be that some of the characters seemed to write in an entirely too literary manner, which I found unbelievable. In our diaries, do we really describe places we know well in such detail? I would perhaps also have liked a little more realism, whether in the details of the War or in the poignancy of the ending. That being said, I read The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir in one sitting. It was addictive, fascinating, and impossible to put down.