The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas – three women working on a wartime railway have special challenges beyond work

The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas

The women who worked in the railways of Manchester during the Second World War did more than cover the jobs of those who had gone to fight. They were women who had family, friends and others, and in this latest novel in the Railway Girls series their loves, both obvious and secret, become the focus of the story. Not that it is all romance and peace; the war continues with regular raids in 1941 which threatens everyone in their homes, on the streets and everywhere else. It works well as a standalone novel for anyone who has not read the earlier books, while those who have will recognise the characters. This novel works because it sensitively looks at the relationships of three main characters in the context of what else is going on in their lives. It also deals with the characters who surround them, where they live, who they work with, and the urge to make the most of each day. 

The author has done an immense amount of work in finding out the big points of what was going on in the area, but also the small details of the women’s lives, the clothes, the dances and much more. Not that the research ever gets in the way of the story; it just helps to establish and maintain the characters and how they feel about themselves and others. This is an excellent read and once begun, will be difficult to put down. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

The book opens with a sort of flashback to February 1939, as Mabel endures a difficult time in her relationship with her best friend Althea.They are almost like sisters, but two separations mean that a significant problem occurs between them. Those who have read the previous two books in the series will have an extra insight into the after effects of the incident which occurs at the end of the first chapter, which I found very powerful. Meanwhile, back in April 1941 when the rest of the book is set, Joan is forcibly reminded of a family tragedy and a disturbed relationship which will lead to trouble throughout the novel. Although it is alongside her romantic relationship, the effects of a lifetime’s questions will run throughout much of this novel. Dot is the busy grandmother and matriarch of a family with typically war time problems, including the absence of adult sons and the question of whether to evacuate children. Not for the first time Dot has occasion to reflect on her own wishes which would seem nearly impossible to act upon. As always this book features the work that the women did as well as the rules they had to obey, alongside the extra risks and challenges of wartime conditions. 

This is a clever, enjoyable and often positive book of a group of women with their family and friends surviving and thriving in unique circumstances. It does not include the melodrama which features in some novels set in this era, and resolutions of situations are never dragged out. It includes a keen awareness of the social divisions suggested by clothes and other almost unspoken hints, as well as how certain characters can achieve a lot by sheer force of personality. Each character is drawn as an individual with their own identity which is a difficult thing to pull off in a novel of an ensemble of this type. Altogether this is a really enjoyable read and gives a vivid picture of women’s lives in wartime Manchester.   

Secrets of the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas – as the blitz gets worse, the women of the Manchester railways must pull together

Secrets of the Railway by Maisie Thomas

Dot, Joan and Mabel are the Railway Girls in this extremely vivid and engaging book set in Manchester in 1940 to 1941. They are women from different backgrounds, different ages, and they have links with some of the other women who work on the railways in and around Manchester. This is the second book which tells the stories of these women and their friends, yet because the narrative is so well constructed it could be read and enjoyed first. The experiences of the women are overlapped well to maintain the pace of the novel, giving different aspects of the way women worked in roles usually assigned to men. It also looks at the realities of life in a city which had an intense Blitz to contend with over a few nights. All of the women in this novel face challenges, some tragedy, and a working together which can help. Romance, humour and friendship are the positive elements that keep this book entertaining; the research into the actual mechanics and events of maintaining travel and transport under pressure makes it a good solid read. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The book begins with the redoubtable Dot as she begins to organise a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas for her family, especially grandchildren Jimmy and Jenny. Not that she confines her efforts to cooking and cleaning, shopping and queuing for her family, she has become a solid support for her friends on the railway. Her husband is still as trying, as he expects her to have his meals ready despite all her other tasks, but at least he is now doing ARP work. Dot finds that she has to use her initiative in her work, but also to investigate something which is troubling her. When problems affect those around her, she tries to be a practical help.

Mabel is still a sensitive young woman with past regrets, but is a strong friend when others suffer loss and need practical assistance. While she and Harry make a beautiful pair, everyone has troubles and challenges to face at this difficult time. Mabel has to act not only for herself, but also for those who struggle with the after effects of the bombs that fall.

Joan’s experiences in this book at times threaten to overwhelm her, as she faces discoveries and decisions that have enormous impact on her life. Her friends and colleagues offer her support, but there are certain decisions she must make for herself.

This is a book which finds its strength in the group of people that work together in strange times. There are many books which deal with groups of women on the Home Front during the Second World War, and this one is so successful because it deals with women of different age groups, and the differences in class, dress and opportunity in a positive way. The clothes of the period are carefully and consistently described to show the different backgrounds of the characters, and it is obvious that the author enjoys these details, a fact which is noted in the back of the book. I enjoyed reading this book for its consistent effort to make these women and those around them seem real, living people with their own distinctive personalities. This is a book which works well on many levels: as a sensitive and lively study of women in a unique set of circumstances, a time of danger and tragedy, and difficult decisions to be made of life and love. I recommend it as a thoroughly good read.