Book Review: The Chilbury Ladies' Choir
I'm super excited to review The Chilbury Ladies' Choir today! Firstly, because it's a brand new book (just released this past February). And secondly, because it's a WW2 historical fiction novel which happens to be one of my favorite genres!
Based on the title, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir sounds like it would be a sleepy, very English (i.e. quaint, yawn-worthy) sort of tale, with little old ladies solving mundane mysteries from the comfort of their settees. But this could not be farther from the truth. This is a story of espionage, jealousy, a terrible secret, friendship, and love in a time of war. I was hooked in the first few chapters when plans between two antagonists were hatched to kidnap a baby! (Insert Home Alone Macaulay Culkin gasp)...
A Spoiler Free Review
The story takes place in Kent in the summer of 1940 and begins with this inciting incident...
The village women are at first sad/outraged that they will lose their choir but resolve to do nothing about it. But when an unconventional music professor, Miss Primrose Trent, comes to town and convinces the Vicar to allow an all-ladies choir things begin to change. At first, the women gather just to keep their spirits up, to keep their minds off of their present anxieties about the war, but soon, the choir begins to look outside themselves at the sufferings of their neighbors.
The novel centers around four main characters:
Mrs. Tilling - an upstanding community nurse, widow, and worrying mother of a young soldier at the front.
Miss Edwina Paltry - A single nurse who specializes in the low and grimy. She takes on dirty jobs and isn't above using blackmail to extract money from people.
Venetia Winthrop - Age 18, the oldest daughter of the Brigadier (one of the main antagonists) and lives at Chilbury Manor. She comes off as vain and selfish at first glance, but there is more to her.
Kitty Winthrop - Age 13, Venetia's sister and the youngest daughter of the Winthrop family. Kitty was my favorite POV to read because she is vivacious and hopelessly romantic.
Each chapter revolves mainly around these four POV's (points of view) which are written in both an epistolary and diary style. What I loved was that each voice was distinct in word choice and verbiage.
Mrs. Tilling's observations are exact, shrewd and sensible, Edwina Paltry is self-pitying and self-justifying (the whininess oozes off of the page), Venetia is confident and snobbish and the way she speaks of herself she's very prideful, Kitty is dreamy and romantic and describes people as shades of colors. There is a rivalry between the two nurses and the two sisters which really makes things interesting. They often want the opposite things which serve only the heighten the plot and reader involvement because I found myself undecided on who I wanted to "win" at the end.
Every POV change and shows a different angle of the same story. Each character has clear desires and even the "good guys" have very human flaws.
Literary Action from Multiple POVs
Although it is a literary story which focuses more on the inward struggles of its characters than the drama of the ensuing war, it is far from slow moving.
It reminded me a little of the Masterpiece miniseries Home Fires, because both portray the strength, sacrifice, and courage of the women left behind to wait for their sons and husbands.
But as I've already said, the action is far from slow in The Chilbury Ladies' Choir. A roguish heir is killed setting off a domino effect that shakes the little town to its core. A baby is kidnapped, a secret needs to be covered up, a spy falls in love, dirty money is stolen and much, much more.
The only way the plot and subsequent sub-plots worked was because of the multiple POV style. It simply wouldn't have worked if Jennifer Ryan had written the novel from one character's perspective. Each character notices and writes about different details that point to the overall struggle but none of them actually knows what is happening in the larger picture, only the reader does. In writing, this is called Dramatic Irony and Ryan does it splendidly.
The reader gets to be the omniscient one. The reader knows what is happening in the novel long before the characters do. I enjoyed holding this knowledge, but there were times when I felt impatient with some of the characters to figure it all out more quickly. I also didn't like some of the recaps I got from several of the characters about the same event. I felt a little bit like, "yep, I got it. Let's keep moving." But that is my only negative critique. ;)
Women and Music
Music is an overarching theme in the story, the two most important contributions it makes is that of friendship and inner-healing. The choir meetings bring recluses together: widows from of their grief, worrying mothers from their lonely thoughts and reminds them all that they are not alone. Many of the women have very little in common save the choir, but the choir gives them a new perspective. They begin looking for ways that they can help fellow human beings: welcoming in refugees, sending blankets, and bringing their music to neighboring cities laid waste by enemy bombs.
The story also deals with the processes of grief and the concept of sadness in a very tender way. Mrs. Tilling writes of an evening where the choir gathers in a circle and sings wordless notes in an otherwise silent church. It is an expression of their grief, of men lost to war, and friends dead. The beauty of the music helps soothe their grief. When the singing ends, each woman gathers her things in silence and leaves the church alone.
This struck me as poignantly true. In the midst of grief, words aren't enough. Only beauty helps. Sometimes that comes in the form of beautiful of music. Also, we all must face our own demons (often of the mind) alone, but there are friends within reach to offer support and love.
Book Comparison and Final Thoughts
I'm going to compare Chilbury it to one of my all time FAVORITE books The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Mostly because both are British, WWII, multiple POV, epistolatory novels and both have excellent internal and external struggles. The similarities stop there, however. Aside from the urge to reread both of these novels the second you've finished, each book accomplishes something very different. The theme of Gurnsey is that love wins in the end, it is stronger than death, distance, and the war between nations. In Chilbury, the theme seems to point more toward finding individual happiness despite circumstance and an uncertain future.
I think it's safe to say if you are a fan of Guernsey (diehard over here!), snatch up Chilbury ASAP. And if you haven't read either, seriously, add both of them to your summer reading list.
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