In 1940s England, all the men of fighting age are gone. Since there are no male voices, the vicar of the Chilbury village church decides to suspend the choir. However, Miss Prim is a determined voice instructor, and she sees no reason that the women cannot continue to sing on their own, shocking as that decision may be. Once the ladies realize that they can sing by themselves, work hard for the war effort, and run their families and their village quite well, they begin to rethink many of the traditional restrictions on their lives.
A village is a perfect setting to stage a microcosm of life. All types of people live here, from the bullying general to the mousy church lady, the flirtatious young beauty and the quiet young scholar. In every tiny town, one can find an evil villain masquerading as a good neighbor and a most unlikely courageous hero. All of these characters and more are living in Chilbury, struggling through the dangers and privations of World War II. Tough times tend to highlight the strengths and deficiencies of one’s character, and we can watch the villagers change as they see themselves more clearly or adjust to the tumultuous world around them.
This epistolary novel is told in letters, journal entries, and the occasional poster or announcement. At first, the rotating point of view seems confusing, but there are only a few regular writers, and the reader comes to know and care for them deeply. All the other villagers are seen through their eyes. The many plot strands weave together seamlessly, revealing that village gossip and scandal never take a pause, even during world-changing events.
Ryan’s novel has been compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, since they are both epistolary British novels set in World War II. The comparison is apt, up to a point, but I recommended Guernsey to everyone, and although Chilbury is both emotionally moving and loads of fun, it is much more of a women’s novel. The few men in the story are quite often reprehensible, along the lines of a Lifetime Channel movie, and are seen through women’s eyes. There are no male primary characters. That being said, there is much to discuss in this novel, and it would make a fantastic women’s book club choice. It is also the first book I read on the new porch, so it will always have a place in my heart!
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available for purchase. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.