Author: Catherine Jones, 2012
Genre: Period Fiction. Family Drama. GLBT themes.
Other Details: ARC. 398 pages.
"You never know, it might be the start of something" Ida said, "Showing people what we can do rather than being told what we can't." - from Wonder Girls.
This quote is one of many inspiring statements found in this novel and it reminded me of the courage so many women exhibited during this time to effect positive change that was carried forward to future generations.
The novel's Prologue opens on a bitterly cold November night in 1937 as Cecily Stirling, a young cleaner at a posh London maternity hospital, is asked by the Matron to assist in smuggling an orphaned baby girl out of the hospital. We then jump forward in time to 2009 where a now elderly Cecily is living on her own in a Welsh seaside town and is still coming to terms with the recent death of her partner. She is befriended by Sarah, a younger woman who with her delightful dog Mungo is taking a break from London and her marriage. A photograph of a girl in an old-fashioned bathing costume prompts Sarah to encourage Ceci to talk about her past and slowly a story emerges, though it does not at first return to her life and the events of 1937 but to an earlier time.
1928 and in that same seaside town, teenager Ida Gaze decides to swim the Bristol Channel. Everyone says it cannot be done, especially by a schoolgirl but Ida, inspired by her heroine Amelia Earhart and supported by her best friend, Freda Voyle, is determined to prove them wrong. Not long after these two thoroughly modern wonder girls are headed to the Big Smoke to take on the challenges of their changing world. What transpires there dovetails into the events of the Prologue into war-time and beyond.
Although a work of fiction Catherine Jones' début novel was inspired by the achievement of a number of young women in the late 1920s who undertook to swim the treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel between Wales and England. Jones writes with great skill and confidence and I found myself drawn into the story very quickly finding her depiction of the 'Roaring Twenties' and 1930s Britain very compelling. The strongest feature for me in this brilliant novel were the characters, main and supporting, who emerged as very real people.
There are themes explored linked to love, friendship, families, growing older, loyalty, hope, loss and bereavement. Jones handles romantic love between various women in the story, whether requited or not, very delicately as befits a time when such relationships were not able to be openly acknowledged. There is also a range of relationships explored, some supportive and others destructive, yet all conveying the sense of how important women can be to each other.
This was a poignant uplifting story that I enjoyed very much. I feel this novel is one that will appeal to reading groups as it has much to recommend it in terms of a good read as well as offering plenty of points for discussion. There is no doubt that Catherine Jones is someone whose future work I'll be keeping an eye out for. My thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for sending me this novel to review.