Monday, July 26, 2021

Jennifer Ryan - The Chilbury Ladies' Choir

This is a delightful novel of wartime gumption and village spirit that will make your heart sing out.
Kent, 1940.
In the idyllic village of Chilbury change is afoot. Hearts are breaking as sons and husbands leave to fight, and when the Vicar decides to close the choir until the men return, all seems lost.
But coming together in song is just what the women of Chilbury need in these dark hours, and they are ready to sing. With a little fighting spirit and the arrival of a new musical resident, the charismatic Miss Primrose Trent, the choir is reborn.
Some see the choir as a chance to forget their troubles, others the chance to shine. Though for one villager, the choir is the perfect cover to destroy Chilbury’s new-found harmony.
Uplifting and profoundly moving, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR explores how a village can endure the onslaught of war, how monumental history affects small lives and how survival is as much about friendship as it is about courage.

Comment: This book got on my radar in 2017, for some of the people whose taste in books is similar, have raved about it. Finally, I decided to read it and while it was a pleasant experience, I expected it to be even better.

In this book we follow several characters in the Chilbury village, in Kent, during the time the initial attacks by the Nazis on England soil begun. From journals, diaries and letters, we get to see what is going with the characters' lives, their thoughts and tribulations and the kind of situations which are both a sign of the war times as well as of what life used to be in the 40s. The starting point is the end of the male choir because men had to go to war, but the ladies left behind, inspired by a new teacher, decide to carry on with tradition...even if their personal lives are upside down...

It's true I liked this story. In tradition of my good impression of other books told in epistolary format (as this one is, more or less), the fun part is to read between the lines, to follow things through the perspective of someone who hares something. Of course, on one hand this can be frustrating because we have no control over what happened, we often get to know things after they happened, but on the other hand it's less stressful, for whatever happened we only see it second hand.

I might sound contradictory but this is the fun part and at the same time, in this novel, it ended up being the less good part too, for there was this slight emotional distance from what was happening which made the story feel a little too bland for me, even if the things described were serious or dramatic. I suppose one has to bear in mind the author's style, after all in the novels I liked with this, some are still favorites, so... not that this was badly written, it was not so, but for me there is a certain lack of emotional content.

The characters belong to a small village and thought the perspective of the narrators we get to have a pretty good idea on how they are, how the relationships between families and individuals is. I think some characters weren't as easy to accept, such as Kitty, a 13 year old who does behave like a kid at times but she also has some grown up ideas I found hard to imagine a real kid having. My favorite character ends up being mrs Tilling, a recurrent narrator through her journal entries, who goes from someone we could think is almost invisible to someone who develops an inner strength.

As one can imagine, the war subject motivates and drives many of the actions which take place in the book but it was surprising how much of the characters' personal issues weren't affected by war and the focus was on the routines. Human expectations and assumptions never change, even if the surroundings do...but because, for me, the emotional content wasn't strong as I'd have liked, I could read through what was happening without feeling overwhelmed.

There are some complicated situations happening in the book. I suppose the author wanted to convey life happens and goes on even though there are things we can't control. I think Venetia's situation was meant to be a lesson learned, that we can't know when something is going to cause us problems or heartache and then we also have the midwife, who seems to be someone so caring and helpful but hiding secrets... overall, the cast of characters was good and I liked spending time in all the narrator's heads, knowing what was going through their minds. But, like I said, knowing things after or told by only a few makes everything seem like a tale at times and the emotional connection wasn't as deep as it could be, for me.

Some readers have commented this isn't a true epistolary/diary format because so many entries include full dialogue and a way I understand, this is how the plot develops for us, readers, but at the same time there isn't much to read between the lines... that is where I agree the author's style can be a setback to the book being a bit stronger.

The end of the book does wrap up things well enough for those who feel this is finished, can be assured of that. However, there is still room to improve some details and if the author wanted, she could do that as well. Some things were cute and sweet, others a little too good to be true but overall, I was happy enough with the way things ended. I would say, though, the choir itself didn't have such a big role as I imagined, the lives of those in it weren't really changed because of it, except perhaps Kitty, who is described as having real talent. Interesting how much attention is given to some details and not as much to others, as if they are there just to justify something; this could have been done better.

All in all, this was good enough, yes, I liked reading and I liked wanting to know what would happen next, how some characters would react...but most of this was a little predictable. Good but not as amazing as I thought it might be.
Grade: 7/10

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