In her afterword to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Jennifer Ryan writes that she was inspired by her grandmother, who used to tell her “thrilling and often racy” stories about her experiences on the home front during World War II. “Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front… Plus, there was the heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it.”
Ryan captures the spirit of the times beautifully in her debut novel, which takes place during the eventful spring and summer of 1940 in a small town in southeastern England, not far from Dover. The story is told through letters and journal entries written by several of the women and girls in town, including middle-aged widow Mrs. Tilling, whose only child, David, is going off to war; 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop and her older sister Venetia, daughters of the powerful and wealthy Brigadier; and crafty midwife Miss Paltry, who is preoccupied with a get-rich-quick scheme. They are all members of the local Women’s Choir, formed after the men who used to lift their voices in song left Chilbury to fight for their country.
Some male newcomers do arrive in town, such as the mysterious artist Mr. Slater, with whom Venetia quickly becomes infatuated, and a colonel doing war work in the area, who is billeted to stay with Mrs. Tilling, much to her dismay.
By the end of the book, I really felt that I had a sense of what it must have felt like to live during that challenging time period, and how the simplest things, like a group of women gathering to sing together, can provide solace and fellowship during crisis: “Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life.”