Wartime for the Shop Girls by Joanna Toye
There are many female led novels set during the Second World War, and this one deserves its place with the best of them. It works because although the setting may be familiar to those readers who enjoy these books, it explores the subtleties of life for those people who were perhaps not in the direct line of fire, not in areas of heavy bombing, but for whom the effects of Home Front destruction were still felt in everyday life. It cleverly reflects the real effects of shortages, of the absences of men serving elsewhere, but also those who continued to live in the community. Friendship links can define daily life, whether because the difficulties of those who are close can affect how a sensitive and yet impulsive character like Lily feels, or because there is the faint stirring of more than friendship in the future. Lily is the main character in this well written series of books, yet many others have their moments as they face separation, childbirth, and the pressures of different demands on their lives. This is a book of characters who almost step from the page into the reader’s imagination. This may be the second book in the series, but I think it can work as a standalone. I certainly enjoyed the dramas and excitements of those who work and are associated with Marlows Department store in this enjoyable book.
The book begins in January 1942, as Lily and her mother Dora welcome eldest brother and son Reg home. He is on a brief leave before heading to places unknown to fight as yet unknown battles. Lodger and friend Jim is also present; like Lily he works at Marlows, and is becoming a vital part of the smooth running of that establishment as well as supporting Lily and Dora. Lily cannot help but compare Reg’s calm and considerate demeanour with her other brother Sid’s more lively and humorous personality. Sid is a much closer sibling and it is not long before she arranges to meet up with him, in a typically complex wartime arrangement of trains and brief encounters. She is surprised when she meets him and is concerned about a secret that she must keep. Meanwhile her friend Beryl is approaching her due date, but as with many others her new husband Les is not present, shipped “overseas” for his military posting. Gladys, a friend who has had a recent tragic past, has at last found a special person in Bill, but he is also under orders to join his ship soon. Seeing her friends becoming romantically involved is having an effect on Lily, but she is aware “that kind of ‘belonging’ thing didn’t feel right for her. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to belong to anyone but herself, not just yet anyway.” Lily sees those around her and sees the possibilities of women having their own career, mindful of how after the First World War women gained the vote and began striking out in politics and other areas. Lily is an ambitious young woman, and is not keen to be limited by marriage at any time in the foreseeable future.
Altogether this is a thoughtful and engaging book with flashes of humour, moving moments and a genuinely thoughtful appreciation of what happened to those who were on the Home Front in the Second World War apart from the drama of local bombing and similar challenges. Lily, her family and friends are lively, realistic and essentially relatable characters, and I recommend this book accordingly.