New Beginnings for the Surplus Girls by Polly Heron – An enjoyable novel of women in Manchester, 1923
New Beginnings for the Surplus Girls by Polly Heron
A group of women have had their lives changed by the First World War, and in Manchester 1923 they are coming together to make a difference. This is the fourth and final “Surplus Girls” book in the series, although it could certainly be read as a stand-alone book. That is mainly because it introduces two new characters: Jess Mason, a young woman who has ambitions to work rather than marry, and Tom Watson, a friendly man with a terrible secret. While established characters are actively influencing them, and affecting the plot, this is essentially the story of two people who have much to discover about themselves and each other.
As with all the books in this series there is a lot of research into the setting and background to this story, as well as the clothes, the expectations and much more. This impressive work is never allowed to slow the narrative, and I felt that there are real insights in the lives of people at the time. The writing, especially the dialogue, is lively and enjoyable, and drew me into the progress of Jess, Tom and the other characters. While most characters are likable, there are also those whose intentions are not always positive, which represents a good balance with those who I was keenly involved with throughout. Heron is very good at seizing on the real problems that people, especially women, faced at the time, and writes persuasively of the effects of discrimination. The after effects of a traumatic War are foremost for at least one character, and generally there is a sense of the enormity of challenges that many people, including children, continue to face. The characters are realistic and essentially human, and altogether this is a book that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.
At the beginning of the novel Jess is shown as a competent and committed hotel employee. An unjust dismissal forces her to return home to her widowed father, who is not supportive of her decision to move away to work. Some friends encourage and facilitate her application for a job in Manchester, which emerges as a chance to prove that she can manage a new home for old soldiers, Holly Lodge. Not that she is universally welcomed; mainly local people of influence openly disapprove of a woman in a responsible role, and she must work hard to prove herself. Fortunately, she encounters some women people who are supportive and encouraging, partly because of their own experiences. Meanwhile Tom has vowed never to allow himself to grow close to anyone after a transformative experience in the War. He is very close to his family, especially the children, and is a responsible and skilled builder in the family firm. When he meets Jess, he feels his promise to remain on his own shaken; he feels a deep attraction to the determined young woman. Meanwhile the other characters continue their lives, as Vivienne strives to fulfil her ambition in the face of an active opponent, and sisters Prudence and Patience are confronted by challenges that will change their lives forever.
This is an enjoyable and enthralling book that I found a really good read. Each instalment in this series has been interesting, exciting, and memorable for all the right reasons. This book shows characters experiencing the highs and lows of life in a fascinating period for women, whose losses have led to a new perspective on life, and a special determination to make the most of opportunities. I recommend this book and indeed series as offering real insights into the lives of women at an exciting time.