Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan

First funeral of the war, and our little village choir simply couldn’t sing in tune. “Holy, holy, holy” limped out as if we were a crump of warbling sparrows. But it wasn’t because of the war, or the young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine, or even the Vicar’s abysmal conducting. No, it was because this was the final performance of the Chilbury Choir. Our swan song.

...It was the funeral of Edmund Winthrop, the Brigadier’s despicable son who was blown up in a submarine last week. Only twenty he was—one minute a repulsive reptile, the next a feast for the fishes.

...Beside her, that foreign evacuee girl looked petrified, like she’d seen death before and a lot more besides.

And so begins a novel, with Miss Edwina Paltry's letter to her sister (quite a fitting surname given the different meanings: small, meagre, trifling, insignificant, negligible, inadequate, insufficient, scant, scanty, derisory, pitiful, pitiable, pathetic, miserable, sorry, wretched, puny, trivial, niggardly, beggarly, mean, ungenerous, inappreciable, mere).

The fictional tale and characters are based on the real diaries and journals which were written during the first year of WWII in Britain for an organization called Mass Observation. They published a newsletter in which the hearts, minds and souls of the ordinary citizens were shared.

The epistolary character of the novel is the result of the author's commemoration of these writers, and the stories her grandmother shared about the war. Four main narrators share through their diaries and letters the funny, racy, touching or terrifying events in Chilbury during 1940, leaving the reader in the midst of a richly textured novel populated by the citizens of the fictional village of Chilbury. 

The main narrators are:
Miss Edwina Paltry - in letters to her sister:
Brace yourself, Clara, for we are about to be rich! I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe! I knew this ruddy war would turn up some gems—whoever would have thought that midwifery could be so lucrative! But I couldn’t have imagined such a grubby nugget of a deal coming from snooty Brigadier Winthrop, the upper-class tyrant who thinks he owns this prissy little village. I know you’ll say it’s immoral, even by my standards, but I need to get away from being a cooped-up, put-down midwife. I need to get back to the old house where I can live my own life and be free.
Mark these words: her little scheme would have her flustered like a bluebottle in a jam jar in the end.

Kitty Winthrop - in her diary - thirteen years old: she saw people as beams of a rainbow, and her eighteen-year-old sister, Venitia, as simply a vile beast.
I like to see people as colors, a kind of aura or halo surrounding them, shading their outsides with the various flavors of their insides.
Me—purple, as brilliant and dark as the sky on a thundery night
Mama—a very pale pink, like a baby mouse
Daddy—soot black (Edmund was also black, but black like a starless sky)
Mrs. Tilling—light green, like a shoot trying to come up through the snow
Mrs. B.—navy blue (correct and traditional)
Henry is a deep azure blue, to match his eyes.
Silvie - in her diary - the much younger Jewish evacuee from Czechoslovakia with her terrible secret.

Venitia Winthrop - in her letters to the vicar's daughter, Angela Quail.

Mrs. Tilling - in her journal - a nurse and the local billeting agent.

Two male voices appeared in their own letters as well.

Flt. Lt. Henry Brampton-Boyd - the most sought-after bachelor in the village. He had many a nasty nail out on dainty little ladies' fingers and a lot to answer for. Even Elsie the parlour maid got her head around something.

Colonel Mallard - in his letters to his sister Mrs. Maud Green. He arrived as curmudgeon old Mr. Bear, and left as snuggly Mr. Toodles, well .... sort of. Life would drastically change for him in Chilbury, that's for sure. 

Miss Primrose Trent from London moved into Chilbury to become the Professor of Music at the Lichtfield University. She revived the choir, now deprived of all the men who went off to war. The Vicar Quail was convinced that all the oxygen and raison d'etre left town with the men. The women would prove him wrong. The choir gave women their voices. The voices they thought they never had. And therein lies the charm of this story of courage, endurance, resilience and hope.

The peripheral characters brought much more color to Kitty's rainbow. They read like the Chilbury telephone directory, but what a wonderful, unbelievable, atmospheric tale they all brought alive.

I'm not going into the plot or storyline. It is for the readers to discover and enjoy through the picturesque prose.

GREAT READ!!! Just absolutely BEAUTIFUL!


Hello, and thank you for being interested in my author page. I'm the author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, which came out in February, 2017. It is my very first novel. Before becoming a writer, I was a nonfiction book editor, editing books about politics and economics, travel and health, and biography and memoir. I worked in London before moving to the Washington, DC, area ten years ago with my husband and two children.

I was born in a village in Kent, England, not too far away from the fictional village of Chilbury. The novel is based on the stories of my grandmother who was twenty when the Second World War began, mostly hilarious tales about bumping into people in the blackout, singing in the air raid shelters, and the freedoms women had during the war years--the excitement and romance. She also belonged to a choir, and her choir stories dramatized the camaraderie and support they all took away; the knowledge that they weren't in this alone. The Chilbury Ladies' Choir uses my dear grandmother's stories as its backdrop. 

If you have read The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, thank you. I very much hope that you liked it. And if you have yet to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I loved writing it. Please visit my website:

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