Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir tells the story of the young girls and women who form an all-women’s choir after their village and choir are depleted of men by the declaration of war against Germany. Chilbury is just seven miles from Dover, twenty miles from the Nazis whose presence across the Channel is an omnipresent and immediate threat.
Through letters and journals the girls and women of the choir tell their stories, stories of transformation. There almost-14 year old Kitty who is transformed by music and her sister Venetia who at 19 is vain and shallow but transformed by love. There’s Sylvie, ten and a Jewish evacuee from Czechoslovakia transformed by tragedy. There’s Mrs. Paltry, the venal, amoral midwife transformed by mercy and Mrs. Trilling, a meek widow who becomes quite formidable, transformed by war and the obvious immediacy of death it brings.
Chilbury may be a quiet English village, but it has baby-swapping, black markets, Nazi spies, extortion, bombing, violence and death. In retrospect, it is amazing how The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir retains its country charm despite having as much action as a noir thriller. It is a triumph of mood.
I enjoyed The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir quite a bit. I could see it becoming a fabulous Masterpiece Theatre series with continuing stories following the characters through the war, introducing new ones as older ones marry, die, or move away, each episode with a coda from the choir, a song that captures the theme of that particular week’s story.
The music is an important element in the story. Prim, the choirmaster, succeeds in getting the women to feel the music, and that emotion brings them together so they find strength and support through their many challenges.
The conceit of telling the story through letters and journals gives us a sense of immediacy, we are right there with the women in the moment, but I think the letter writers reveal more than real letter-writers would. No “burn this letter” instructions would counter the damage if Mrs. Paltry’s letters were intercepted. Venetia confides secrets in her letters to her best friend that she has no foundation for trusting her friend to keep silent. Her letters only make sense if they were letters unsent. Kitty’s journal is a bit too mature for her age, not in the emotion, but in the descriptive capacity. She writes like a writer, describing her life as a patchwork of colors and shapes stitched together to make “an uncomfortable, badly fitting whole.”
Truly, all the women write far too well. However, more authentic voices would not be as engaging or as revelatory. We would read more about how many cans of beans were put up and how tiresome it is to make the bed rather than this grand story of how a group of women came together to sing and in singing, created a sense of community that sustains them though all challenges.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will be released on February 14, 2017. I was given an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.