The village of Chilbury in Kent is about to ring in some changes.
This is a delightful novel of wartime gumption and village spirit that will make your heart sing out.
In the idyllic village of Chilbury change is afoot. Hearts are breaking as sons and husbands leave to fight, and when the Vicar decides to close the choir until the men return, all seems lost.
But coming together in song is just what the women of Chilbury need in these dark hours, and they are ready to sing. With a little fighting spirit and the arrival of a new musical resident, the charismatic Miss Primrose Trent, the choir is reborn.
Some see the choir as a chance to forget their troubles, others the chance to shine. Though for one villager, the choir is the perfect cover to destroy Chilbury’s new-found harmony.
Uplifting and profoundly moving, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR explores how a village can endure the onslaught of war, how monumental history affects small lives and how survival is as much about friendship as it is about courage.
What an uplifting, engaging, utterly delightful read (and listen)!
The Chilbury Ladies Choir is set in the small English village of Chilbury in 1940, as the ladies of the town try to find purpose and solace while the men are at war. When the official church choir is closed down due to a lack of men, spirits sink even further, until the women decide to sing on their own. Stemming from there, relationships are strengthened as the women find a new source of courage. By standing up together, they realize they can make a difference, and each, in her own way, starts to move beyond the boundaries of her former life and take a chance on something new.
Told through journal entries, newspaper clippings, and letters, we get to know the main characters through their own voices, which is a wonderful touch. Young Kitty Winthrop, age 13 (almost 14! as she likes to point out) is an aspiring singer with a childish crush on an older boy, which she allows to dominate her romantic dreams. Kitty’s sister Venetia, age 18, is the town beauty who likes nothing better than flirting and toying with attractive men, making them fall in love with her and then pushing them aside once they do. However, when Venetia meets the mysterious Mr. Sleator, an artist who moves to Chilbury along with many other evacuees, she sense something more in him than merely this week’s fling. For Mrs. Tilling, a woman widowed years earlier whose only son is now fighting in the war, the ladies’ choir offers a chance to create beauty and harmony, and helps her come out of her shy shell and become a leading force in the community. And then there’s Mrs. Paltrey, a midwife with a heart of stone, who schemes to make it rich no matter what, and no matter whose lives may be shattered along the way.
It’s moving and fascinating to see how these and other characters grow and change over the course of the book. Venetia in particular is an absorbing character. Shallow and self-centered when we first meet her, she grows into a woman of substance over the months we know her, as she falls in love, suffers great loss, and emerges as a hero at a time of devastation. Likewise, Kitty, while still a young woman, learns to appreciate those around her and see people more realistically, while also realizing that even someone of her young age can make a difference.
These characters’ stories, as well as those of other women of the village, weave together to create a portrait of community and courage. We don’t go to war; we stay behind and see how this small village is affected by the war, and how all are changed by it, for good or for ill.
I loved the audiobook version, which features a cast of voice actors to represent the main narrative voices of the story. Hearing the women’s stories told in their own words, each with a voice that felt specific to that character’s true self, was a really special way to appreciate the story. In this particular case, I highly encourage giving the audio a try — it’s a wonderful experience. As an added bonus, in key points in the story, we hear choral music in the background which ties in with what the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is singing in that moment. It’s not overdone, certainly not enough to interrupt the flow or get annoying. Instead, at crucial moments, when a song is particularly meaningful in relation to the events being portrayed, we hear a lovely women’s choir providing an added bit of atmostphere.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a book group pick, and yet another one that I might have skipped over if not for the group. When it was first selected I was skeptical: The title made me think that it would be a very church-y sort of book, perhaps a little saccharine and cloying. Well, once again I’m glad to not have judged a book by its title! The choir itself is the framework of the story, but really, the book is about so much more. It’s a portrait of the courage and strength a community can find by supporting one another through the worst of times, and shows how each woman emerges as a better version of herself when given the opportunity to step forward and stand up.
Title: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Narrated by: Gabrielle Glaister, Laura Kirman, Imogen Wilde, Adjoa Andoh, Tom Clegg, Mike Grady
Publication date: February 14, 2017
Length (print): 384 pages
Length (audio): 11 hours, 34 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction