Today I am blowing my own trumpet and ringing my own bell! Anne Williams – beinganne.com – is not only one of our most esteemed bloggers but one of the nicest people in the World of Books. I have always found her to be supportive of authors and her reviews interesting, appreciative and fair. So I was delighted to see she was the first blogger on my blog tour for A Village in the Country, organised by the no less wonderful Rachel Gilbey at Rachel’s Random Resources.
I awaited her review – and almost fell off my seat when I read it. I can’t explain how amazing it is to get a review like this from Anne. Here it is:
“I’ve dipped into Elaine’s writing quite a few times over the years – I very much enjoyed a few of the books in the Singles series (you can find my reviews via the search bar in my side panel), and her Christmas novella last year, You Never See Rainbows At Christmas, was just wonderful (if you missed it, do add it to this year’s Christmas reading list – you’ll find my review here). I will admit though – with apologies – that I was less attracted by her Banjo series set in Dagenham – the first set in the 1950s, the second in the 1970s. This book is a prequel to that series, but very much a standalone read, starting at the end of WW1 – it’s an era I enjoy reading about, and the blurb really drew me in – so I decided it might just be time to visit Dagenham. In real life, I did visit once – helping out in the centre paying benefits to the families of striking workers in the Ford factory – but at the start of this book it was a very different place indeed, a quiet country village…
It’s November 1918 and the whole nation comes together to give thanks for the end of a bloody world war that has left few families unscathed. More than seven hundred thousand men have perished; those fortunate enough to return are mere shadows of the men who left. Women who have kept the country going by working in munitions factories and picking fruit and vegetables on farms and in market gardens are expected to give up their jobs to the men returning home. In the peaceful Essex village of Dagenham Milly Brightwell is among the women who are not happy at having to take a step back in peacetime as she dreams and makes plans of becoming her own boss.
But just as life returns to post-war normal, the London County Council announces its plans to build more than twenty-five thousand Homes for Heroes on the farmland and countryside surrounding Dagenham. Within the space of ten years the population will rocket to a hundred thousand people and the quiet country village will morph into the largest housing estate in Europe. For the families in Dagenham Village looking forward to better times in the 1920s, life will never be the same again.
This is a quite wonderful story that follows the lives of three Dagenham families over 13 years – from the end of the First World War to 1931, when their former home village and way of life finally disappeared for ever. Each family’s story focuses on a wonderfully strong woman: as the story begins Milly Brightwell works at a munitions factory, living with her father, flighty sister Lou with her young fatherless daughter, and dreams of a better life; Maudie Page is a war widow with four children, who picks fruit and vegetables for a living on the farm owned by Godfrey Williams and his sister Delia; Elsie is the matriarch of the Woods family, her husband missing in action, running a thriving rag and bone business and associated shop where they sell up-cycled furniture and the fashionable clothing she makes from the rags they collect.
The book essentially follows them through every twist and turn that follows, dipping in and out over the years as their lives and fortunes change – and I found the author’s storytelling absolutely enthralling. If you’re a fan of a historical saga (and that’s certainly not compulsory – it’s rarely my preferred genre either), you’ll find so much you’ll love in this book – there’s considerable hardship, plenty of dramatic and emotion-filled events, a few compelling mysteries to follow, plenty of surprises, all with a cast of wonderfully real characters whose hopes and dreams you share. I’m not going to even try and summarise everything that happens to them – if I tried, I’d be here until Christmas, quite apart from the fact that it’d be awful to spoil this book for anyone – but I have to say that there were characters in this lovely book who entirely won my heart, desperately sad moments that broke it, and moments of joy that made it sing. When I sat down to read this book, I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely sure that it’d be the book for me – but when I finally emerged from its pages at the end, I really didn’t want to leave the characters behind, and their experiences stayed with me for some time thereafter.
But as well as being an exceptionally engaging human story, this is the fascinating story of the evolution and history of Dagenham itself – from a rural idyll where its inhabitants lived off the land, through the massive changes brought by the building of the massive numbers of post-war Homes for Heroes bringing in hordes of resettled Londoners, and on through to the beginnings of the Ford factory and the influx of Northerners to make up its new workforce. The research that went into this book must have been immense, and the author uses it all quite superbly – you really feel at your core the massive impact of change, all happening over a remarkably short period of time, and experience their former way of life disappearing forever and the shockwaves that causes to the lives of those vividly real characters. The authenticity of the historical setting is quite remarkable – the whole book really is a lesson in how to use research to create a time and place that a reader entirely inhabits, with all those small details that make you feel you’re part of their lives through that period of change in the 1920s.
I’ve read and enjoyed the author’s writing before – but I really hadn’t expected something quite as stunning as this book. I adored every moment, and this just might be one of my books of the year – highly recommended to all.”
THANK YOU so much, Anne.
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