The Surplus Girls by Polly Heron
Following the First World War there was thought to be many “surplus women” who would not have the chance to marry and have families because of the large number of men killed in battle. This is a novel which concerns that problem in the case of Belinda Layton, oldest child of the challenging Layton family. Beginning in January 1922, Belinda still mourns her much loved fiance Ben and lives with his mother and grandmother rather than her family. She still makes contributions to her family’s housekeeping, as her feckless father brings in little money and drinks more. This is a highly intelligent story of a young woman desperately trying to improve her lot in a world where there are few opportunities for uneducated women, and many men are coping with the legacy of a traumatic war. Polly Heron is so skilful at creating characters that the reader grows to care about that when challenging things happen it can be so moving. Not that anyone is perfect; there are stubborn women clinging to the past, young people already gaining a bad reputation and some resourceful older ladies. There is humour, love and much more in this book of a group of people trying to find a better way to live. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book begins with Belinda working an extra Saturday shift in order to buy coloured fabric to break away from the black mourning clothes she has been wearing since Ben’s death. She has to cope with an abusive foreman, and a home life physically dominated by overwhelming grief. Visiting her own family shows her how little money her mother struggles to manage, with several younger siblings, and how difficult her life is in small rooms. Life for those struggling on small wages was very tough in the 1920s, and Belinda dispairs for herself in future as an unmarried woman, but equally for her mother who is unable to depend on her husband. Meanwhile a pair of unmarried sisters suffer the loss of their father, and have to think laterally in order to preserve their home. When Belinda enters their lives she finds a whole new way of life offered , and an attractive young man. Meanwhile a young man is struggling to remember his very identity following a huge trauma in the War, and discovers that some answers only lead to more questions.
This is a lively book which raises many questions about women who are seen as lower class by their clothes and lack of education. The desperation of the poor is explored, but not in a lengthy or extended way. There are twists and turns in this book which reflects real life well, as people must try to cope with difficult situations, and show various reactions. The research into the period is excellent, as both the settings and clothes are carefully detailed, but never in so much detail as to be tedious. This is a lively and well written book which will appeal to those who love “sagas” but also those interested in the very human and social realities of the time. Belinda is a well drawn character, and I also enjoyed reading Patience’s story. This is a novel which feels very authentic, and I look forward to reading future books in this series.
A quick inspection of a certain website suggests that the next book in the series should be published in January – something to look forward to at least!