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The Chilbury Ladies' Choir    by Jennifer Ryan order for
Chilbury Ladies' Choir
by Jennifer Ryan
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2017 (2017)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Ryan's The Chilbury Ladies' Choir set in World War II England. And though it took me a little while to get to know all the narrators of the story, once I did, they held my interest strongly throughout.

It's a mix of mystery, (old and young) romance, tragedy, and a coming of age. There's even a bit of a spy story. But primarily it's an account of women coming into their own as their societal roles are forced to adapt to wartime necessities. The story is told through the letters, journal and diary entries of several leads - mild-mannered Mrs. Tilling, a nurse whose only son is about to head to France; unscrupulous Edwina Paltry, a midwife on the make; teen Kitty Winthrop who envies her beastly older sister Venetia and wants to be a singer; and the lovely Venetia, somewhat of a young femme fatale who's making a play for flat-footed artist Alastair Slater, recently arrived in the village.

It all begins with a notice from the vicar, closing the church choir because 'all our male voices have gone to war'. After some argument on its propriety, the women, led by music professor Prim Trent, form a Ladies' Choir - even Mrs. Tilling speaks up for it and this is just the beginning of her metamorphosis. Her voice strengthens, 'In defiance of my right to be heard.' The choir enters competitions and wins. We meet a young Jewish Czech evacuee, Silvie, staying with the Winthrops; Colonel Mallard is billeted with Mrs. Tilling; and we watch a plot to switch babies unfold. But, as all this develops on the home front, the war escalates in Europe.

After Dunkirk, there's increased anxiety about a Nazi invasion, and Venetia fears that Alastair is up to no good and might even be a Nazi spy. Edwina's attempts to claim a reward introduce an element of farce. Bombs smash Chilbury and villagers lose people close to them. But the choir helps them all keep going and women's voices continue to grow louder 'to stand up for ourselves and to stand up for others.' This is an extraordinary novel and the Chilbury Ladies' Choir is indeed the 'most inspiring group of women you'll ever meet.'

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