Set in England during WWII, “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” focuses on the war’s impact on a small group of women as told through fictitious journal entries and letters to family and friends.
At first, I was worried that this book was a little bit of a knock-off of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society”, which I liked a lot and reviewed here. Both are set in small English villages during WWII, the stories are are told via correspondence and even the titles are somewhat similar. However, it’s different enough that it stands on its own. It’s not as charming as “Guernsey”, but it has some well told plots and subplots that captured and kept my attention.
It’s 1940 and most of the village’s men are gone, supporting the war effort. In fact, the church choir has been so decimated of its male members that it’s being disbanded. Apparently, women-only choirs just weren’t done back then (who knew?). But the new choir mistress in town has other ideas. She knows that an organized choir will provide the women with much needed support, camaraderie and a sense of purpose, so she bucks tradition and assembles The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
But the book isn’t mostly about the choir. In fact, there are times when it really fades into the background to allow other stories to take center stage. There’s a baby swap orchestrated by a nefarious midwife and an aristocrat who needs a male heir. There is a romance between an ingenue and a mysterious artist. There’s a young refugee that is struggling with what is happening to her family back in Czechoslovakia. There are some farcical scenes but there are also scenes that made me cry (darn it!). At first I thought maybe the book was having an identity problem (did it want to be a charming comedy or a somber tragedy?), but I think the author is making the point that life is made up of both.
The book also illustrates the impact a stressful situation, such as a protracted war, has on people. One character evolved from being a meek widow to being a confident village leader. Another transformed from a self-centered man-eater to a more substantive and likeable young woman. And a lot of the positive change happened because of the sense of community and purpose that the choir provided.
So the book had a good message and and some interesting story lines.
What didn’t work for me at all was the way the technique of using letters and journal entries was executed. For one thing, letters from the characters contained full-blown, lengthy recounts of dialogues complete with quotation marks and proper syntax. That didn’t seem authentic at all.
But what really bothered me were the journal entries by a 13-year-old girl. Here’s an example: “Having let ourselves in the side door, we wandered through the kitchen to the hall, hoping to catch Mama having tea with maybe a few sandwiches to spare. The sound of her meandering voice, then Venetia’s languid tones, echoed crisply through galleried marble hall…” Good grief! That is not the voice of a 13-year-old writing in her journal. I think if an author is going to use this particular technique, they need to make the voices very believable or risk perpetually distracting some of their less imaginative readers (me).
I just couldn’t let these technique issues go. They bothered me throughout the entire book. For that reason, my opinion of “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” is that it was good but not a favorite.