The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan comes with a lovely cover and a misleading blurb. On the surface, it is about an all-women choir formed in the wake of its male members’ departure to fight in the Second World War. The initial scepticism is replaced by a quiet confidence as the women find their voice under the guidance of Primrose Trent, a cloaked wonder who encourages the girls and women of Chilbury to sing — for joy, for grief, for faith, for courage.
If only the story had continued in this vein! It rapidly turns towards intrigue, which is totally fine, but dwells very little on the song that the blurb says is trying to hold the community together. What works well is the cosy English village atmosphere, the selection of characters and their evolution, and the familiarity of women gathering at church, full of ‘good works’ and gossip. However, somewhere down the line, it segues into Angela Brazil territory, albeit spiced up with dalliances she would have frowned upon. Narrated through a series of letters and journal entries, while the book is paced well, the prose is baffling. All the narrators sound like one another, and resort to purple prose and similes at the drop of a hat.
Sample this, from a letter where a woman is describing her pursuit of a man in excruciating detail:
There was a light mist that lingered in the air, coating the village with a wordless hush.
And from another letter, supposedly from a woman who never had a chance at a proper education:
The distant clang of someone banging out the Moonlight Sonata on a piano clunked uneasily around the ornate ceiling as I ran my fingers over the crusted gold brocade couch. Then I picked up a bronze sculpture of a naked Greek, heavy in my fist like a lethal weapon. The opulence of the room was dazzling, with the floor-length blue silk drapes, the majestic portraits of repulsive forebears, the porcelain statues, the antiquity, the inequity.
I really wanted to like this book. I usually enjoy books about the lives of women during wars; Suite Française continues to linger in my head a few years after I read it. I wish Ryan had written her book in third person. The detailed conversations and descriptions of scenery would have seemed more in place that way. As a Goodreads reviewer pointed out, the letters were all about the writers themselves, with not a mention about the recipients’ lives. However, despite my cribbing and its predictability, the book was a page-turner. I wanted to know more about the characters and their lives, and the class differences that were hinted at. The book got me through a difficult week, and for this reason alone, I’d say it served its purpose.