A Store at War by Joanna Toye
Lily has left school without her School Certificate, but in June 1941 she is hopeful of getting a job where she could not have imagined otherwise – Marlow’s department store. As the daughter of a widowed and remarkable mother, she needs to work, and this is a big opportunity to avoid working on the market or a similar role. Her two brothers Sid and Reg have joined up, though Sid is at home on sick leave, having injured his ankle. This is the first book in a series of wartime sagas which tell the story of Lily, her family and friends. There are the highs of discovering attractions, new opportunities and much more, but this is wartime, so there will be absences and loss, limitations and rationing to contend with as well. Joanna Toyce’s first original novel sets up situations for Lily and others to contend with, both as a family and individuals. The dialogue is lively and sounds realistic, and the characters come alive on the page. Lily is a wonderful character, so well drawn in many ways, with doubts as well a genuine concern for others. Lighter in feel than many other wartime sagas, this is a book which promises much for the later books in the series.
The book opens with Lily preparing to go to her interview. Painfully aware how much rides on this meeting, she tries to tame her hair and is desperate to appear a little older. Not that her mother will allow her too much leeway, demanding that she wash off the make up she has applied. Marlow’s is the most upmarket shop in the town, where even entering the shop to look around seems impossible to a girl like Lily. She is only fourteen when the book begins, and she is so nervous when she discovers that her interview is to be with Cedric Marlow himself, the owner of the shop. As his secretary Miss Garner, acknowledges, as all the usual people who would be employed in the shop have left for war service of one kind or another, only the old, the very young or otherwise exempt are applying for jobs. This is a time of rationing, when virtually all food had to be queued for, saved and stretched. Cedric himself notices the worn out nature of Lily’s shoes, knowing that the family could not afford to shop in the place where she will work. As the story progresses there are new people introduced, such as Gladys, with her difficult home life and tragic family history, and Beryl, who is sharp and difficult. Lily’s mother Dora is a strong woman, with sayings and resources for every event, who is desperately proud of her children and always worried for their well being. Not that Lily tells her everything, and with air raids, a complicated plan and more, Lily must work hard in every sense.
This is a well written book that handles difficult situations well. There is a lot of research here, into minor things like available food, clothing restrictions and the set up of a local department store, but the information is blended into the narrative well. All the characters have layers, from an optimistic girl in search of love to a sad story of family challenges. I really enjoyed this novel, having had the opportunity to read a later one in the series, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys female led fiction set during the Second World War.