War Babies by Rachel Billington
Millie, Di and Cleo are three girls who are the War Babies, born during the Second World War. The effect that war has on their parents and everyone around them will affect everything in some respect, leaving them with needs that cannot easily be met by the people that they encounter. A distant mother who wants to help people, and a father who has his own secrets leaves the three girls to grow into young women who are desperate to succeed, desperate to impress. Millie, Millicent, feels the pull of an academic career, but instead chooses marriage, motherhood and religious devotion. Di, Diana, wants to be a soldier, be at the centre of the battles that follow a worldwide conflict. Cleo, Cleopatra, discovers the words that build stories, new worlds that she finds easier to cope with. When disaster overtakes them, how will knowledge, memories and secrets prepare them for a whole lifetime?
This is a brilliantly plotted book which drops a hint in the Prelude to the nature of the book. Its opening, on the return of Brendan to his wife and daughters following his war service is incredibly telling. His wife Julie, mother of the three children that he barely knows and in the case of Cleo, the youngest, has never met, is crucial in summing up not only his relationship with his wife who is seemingly deliberately distant, but also his first effective contact with these three small girls. The brilliance of the writing of this book is shown in what could be dismissed as a childish squabble for attention, had it not foreshadowed how the girls would feel about each other, but mainly their mother. Di, in her second piece of the book, sums it up “Julie became less fiendish after she was elected to parliament.” She talks at her daughters, not waiting for answers, superficially the caring mother, but really already distant from their lives.The girls all respond in their own ways, and there are so many lines that could be quoted to show their feelings. The author has cleverly given each girl her own voice in sections to express her progress, her encounters with men, alcohol and religion as appropriate for their lives apart from Julie,and especially after the departure of their father. Each tries to construct a world for themselves, and each struggles to connect with the men that they encounter, some of whom they try to love.
This is a desperately honest book, with each of the main characters trying to explain, trying to justify the decisions they take, the actions that will determine their lives to a lesser or greater extent. It is this desperate honesty set amid the changing times from the 1950s towards the end of the century which forms the strongest attraction of this book. Billington has used her skill at capturing a moment, a point in time, and making so much depend on it, while making sure that her characters also move on, change and develop. It is a balancing act which she achieves, setting out a significant incident, then moving her characters on. Thus the book takes on aspects of a thriller, with the reader knowing that there is more going on, and wondering if it will ever be revealed.
This is an intense novel, which manages to convey a sense of the feeling that each character experiences throughout. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and recommend it to everyone who is interested in the nature of the relationships between sisters and life in the second half of the twentieth century.