“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan; Crown Publishing Group; February 2017; paperback edition, September 5, 2017; 416 pp
Novels set during World War II are still being written on a regular basis, with a wide variety of story lines. Jennifer Ryan’s splendid first novel “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” is set in a small village in England in the early days of the war, when many of the men have left to join the war effort; letters and journals are used to tell the story. The paperback edition of this engaging read will be available in early September.
The majority of the book is made up of the correspondences and diaries of five women: two young well-to-do sisters, Kitty and Venetia, ages 13 and 18 respectively, whose father is somewhat of a tyrant; Mrs. Tilling, a shy widow and nurse whose son has gone to war; Silvie, a ten-year-old Jewish evacuee and Edwina Paltry, a scheming midwife who has a devious plan to finally gain prosperity for herself and her sister.
The book begins with a notice posted in the Chilbury Village Hall by the Vicar announcing that the village choir is closing down due to all the male voices having gone to war. Some of the women in the choir feel that this is a bad idea and rise up to challenge the Vicar’s decision, asserting that a women’s choir is just what they need while the war is going on: “There’s something bolstering about singing together.” Kitty, Venetia, Mrs. Tilling, Silvie and Miss Paltry are all members of the choir. Conveniently, a music professor from a nearby college, Miss Primrose (Prim) Trent, has recently moved into town and has agreed to direct the choir. Prim soon has the women sounding like a polished choir and even enters them in a contest.
Despite the book’s title, the choir is not the main focus of the book, but it is the bond that connects the women. While adjusting to wartime circumstances, the women encounter many struggles and challenges. Kitty has an unrealistic crush on one of the young men from the village, Venetia falls in love with a mysterious artist who has recently moved to Chilbury, and Silvie keeps a secret regarding her family in Czechoslovakia. In addition, there are suspicions that an unknown spy is living in the village and two babies are born. As several dramas unfold, the women gradually realize that they can persevere during the war using music to lift their spirits. In a letter to a friend Venetia states “…at least we can still sing. It’s amazing how much better it can make you feel.”
Ryan combines romance, intrigue and compassion in this novel, along with a fair amount of humor. What makes the book especially endearing are the frequent passages that point out the pleasing effects of singing in a choir. As Mrs. Tilling states “Funny how a bit of singing brings us together. There we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other. That’s what counts.”
Although the war is a backdrop for the novel and genuine drama takes place, “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” is not exactly serious historical fiction. It contains some sobering segments, but is really a charming and entertaining read.
Ryan grew up in Kent, England and was inspired to write this novel by her grandmother who told many stories of how the women managed to endure during World War II.
“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” is available in bookstores everywhere including the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University Bookstores.