The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Jennifer Ryan, author; Gabrielle Glaister, Laura Kirman, Imogen Wilde, Adjoa Andoh, Tom Clegg, Mike Grady, narrators
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir tells the story of a typical small community in England during the early days of WWII. Entirely through the journals, diaries and letters of the characters, over a period of about six months, from mid March to early September, 1940, the author highlighted their perceptions of the war and how long it would last. She coupled that with their slow realization that the war was indeed real and the battles would soon come to their little hamlet, with the harshness of the loss of their loved ones and the brutality and violence of the bombings, forcing them to deal with the consequences, the death and destruction. In the process, the author showed the fortitude and courage of some and contrasted it with the abominable behavior of some scoundrels who were only too willing to take advantage of the weakness of others, looting and conniving, forgetting morality and loyalty. When disaster struck, the women who were left behind to carry on when the men went to war, rose to the occasion and faced their responsibilities with determination and courage.
Some of the characters were more affable and likeable than others. I particularly liked Primrose Trent. Prim was the music teacher, newly arrived from London, who came with flowing cloaks and a large, colorful personality that exuded positivity and gaiety. She was the inspiration for the Chilbury Ladies Choir which came about because there were no longer many men remaining in their village. They had all gone away to aid in the war effort. While some of the women were more timid and fearful of starting an all female choir, she inspired them and encouraged them to soldier on and even arranged for them to participate in choir competitions. She taught the children in school, and in general, brought a lightness and calmer spirit to the village. Although some held more gruff opinions about the choir and the peculiarities of Prim, most appreciated her company and presence, in the end.
Even in a time of war, romance flourished, and the young and old found time to fall in love. The times did put a strain on some relationships, but as they all interacted with each other, for a common goal, they discovered a new understanding about themselves and those around them. It was through the writings and the revelations about these interactions that the struggles and strengths of the townspeople were revealed.
One of the characters, Silvie, was a young child who had been sent to Chilbury to live with the Winthrop family, for her own safety, hopefully to protect her from the Nazis. She was a Jewish child and her parents’ fate remained unknown. The Brigadier Winthrop was a mean, authoritarian man with a tendency to make threats and behave with brutal violence. Mrs. Winthrop, Lavinia, was a weak, but kind, little meek bird. She had just suffered the loss of her only son, Edmund, to the war, and while she was bereft, her husband was livid because his fortune was in jeopardy; it had to be passed to a surviving male relative. The Brigadier made an unscrupulous arrangement with the less than honorable town midwife, Edwina Paltry, to arrange for his pregnant wife to have a son. He had two surviving daughters, Venetia and Kitty. Kitty was in love with Henry Brampton-Boyd, heir to a family fortune, who was in love with her sister Venetia. Venetia was in love with an artist “Alistair Slater”, whose background was largely unknown and his occasional odd behavior was a source of confusion for her. Was he honorable or corrupt, a criminal or a traitor? Mrs. Tilling was a nurse. She was a bit standoffish, kind of overly proper, but she was kind to everyone except the man who was billeted with her, Colonel Mallard. She resented him because her son had only just gone off to war, and she wanted no one to occupy his room. There were several other interesting characters who came to life with the narrators excellent portrayal.
The story was told with a gentle wit and a light touch even when tragedy was depicted. The descriptions of the brutality of the war were authentic and truly imparted the emotions that the characters felt with the ominous drums of war beating daily. The bombings and the destruction were realistic. The loss and subsequent suffering was shattering. The ability to find joy and love in the face of the wartime despair showed the remarkable resilience of the community and its residents.
The war changed everyone in both good and bad ways. Heroes and scoundrels were made. Class distinctions were slowly losing their grip on society. The aristocracy was losing favor. Hitler was marching across Europe; he was leaving carnage in his wake, capturing and imprisoning innocent people because of their religion, sexual proclivity or lack of mental acuity.
I found the ending a little bit soft. It seemed a bit like a fairytale with everything falling into place neatly. I alternately read and listened to the book. Both mediums were great, but it was a special joy to listen to the audio which made the characters real for me as they were each presented with their own individual voice and personality. I felt like I got to know most of them fairly well, and their behavior represented the time period well. The sacrifice war necessitates was exemplified by the mothers who sent their children away for safety’s sake, the mothers and wives who lost their loved ones to the war and bore their loss heroically, all the women did whatever they could to help, sometimes risking their own lives in the process.
I won this book from librarything.com.