Joyous and Endearing: Dear Mrs Bird, by AJ Pearce (Book Review)

I started off this year with a promise to myself: that I would not buy any new books until I had read some of the ones that I already have. At the last count I had around 120 unread books dotted about my house (!) and I don’t have a big home. They are on bookshelves but also in piles on the floor by the bookcase, on tables, on the stairs, in just a random pile on the floor in the spare room. Anywhere I have space! And it is lovely to have my own library of books, but the problem is I never have time to read any of them because I’m always reading that new book that I just had to buy.

So, this year I have joined the #beatthebacklog crowd, set up by @owlbesatreading on Twitter, to try and “make myself” (for want of a better phrase, obviously there’s so many worse things in the world than making yourself sit and read books you already own), so I can free up some space in my home (to buy more books later, obviously), save a few pennies, and discover some of the wonderful stories that I already have in my possession.

So, I started the year with Dear Mrs Bird which has sat on my bookcase for far too long, and I really do have to take a moment to congratulate myself for choosing it to start of the year – what a great choice! I loved every page of this book and was quite bereft when it ended. Set during World War Two, we follow Emmy Lake as she volunteers as a telephone operator for the fire brigade and tries to start her career as a journalist.

Emmy wants to be a Lady War Correspondent and when she sees an advert to work for The Evening Chronicle she applies for it. However, the job is not what she thinks it is gong to be. Instead of writing for the newspaper, she instead becomes an assistant for the ferocious Mrs Bird, the resident agony aunt for Woman’s Friend a magazine that is published by the same group as The Evening Chronicle. It is Emmy’s job to read through the letters received each day and pass them on to Mrs Bird for response. However, Mrs Bird has very strict rules as to what sort of agonies she will print a response to. Topics that will not be written about include (but are not limited to): marital relations, pre-martial relations, extra-marital relations, sexual relations in general, The War, and cookery. When Emmy reads the letters she has to reject, she cannot help but want to give the writers a response.

I still wanted to be a proper Correspondent. A lady war journalist like the ones I had read about who marched off to report on Spain’s Civil War with nothing more than two fur coats and a fierce determination to find out the truth. I wanted to be part of the action and excitement.

But trying to become a news journalist could wait. Mrs Bird was stuck in another age. Her views may have been accepted thirty years ago but they were out of date now. This wasn’t just her war. It was everyone’s. It was ours.

I wanted to make a go of it. I wanted to stay at Woman’s Friend and try to help the readers out. I still didn’t know exactly how I would do it, but people needed a hand.

Dear Mrs Bird, AJ Pearce

This book so brilliantly walked the line between humour and sadness. AJ Pearce portrays the brutality of the blitz, and what it must have been like to live in London at the time, but through the eyes of a young woman who wants to go out to the cinema and go dancing with her best friend, Bunty. There’s joy and excitement going on whilst bombs drop in the background. And then there’s the mornings when she emerges from working all night on the telephones and parts of the street have completely disappeared: shells and foundations of homes, bedroom furniture suddenly exposed to the world and shocked people left to sift through the rubble.

But the thing I loved most, was Emmy’s voice. The capitalisations of words peppered throughout paragraphs For Humour and Tone just add to the character of the book and I had such a distinct voice in my head as I read. It really felt like it had that wartime brusqueness but it was also oh so funny and warm.

‘I’m so very sorry,’ said Bunty again. ‘Would you like a hankie?’

She offers me hers. It was nice and clean, with lemon edging.

‘No thank you,’ I said, remaining polite in what was clearly A Difficult Situation.

Bunty looked distressed. ‘Would you like to sit down?’ she said. ‘Perhaps I shall sit down. Is it Edmund? Poor, dear Edmund.’

Dear Mrs Bird

Reading in the Author’s Note also made me think abut how the book connects our modern lives to those in 1940. AJ Pearce explains that idea came after reading reading the Problem Page in a 1939 women’s magazine. “Among the hundreds of letters I went on to read… there have been many that made me smile – such as asking what to do about freckles, or trouble with people who pushed into queues. Most of all, though, I was struck by the huge number of letters in which women faced unimaginably difficult situations in the very toughest of times.” I think this book was such a unique way of looking at women’s lives in the War. But also it creates a link across the generations and how some problems, such as relationships ending, mealtimes going wrong, we can all still relate to.

AJ Pearce has written a sequel called Yours Cheerfully, and the minute my book-buying ban is over (hopefully in time for the paperback to come out), I’ll be getting it. I can’t wait to head back into Emmy’s world and see what’s been going on there since we left.

Published by luggageandscribble

Oh hey, just a girl who loves reading.

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