1942. Sixteen-year-old Poppy Percival turns up at the gates of Trout's clothing factory in Bethnal Green with no idea what her new life might have in store. There to start work as a seamstress and struggling to get to grips with the noise, dirt and devastation of East London, Poppy can't help but miss the quiet countryside of home. But Poppy harbours a dark secret - one that wrenched her away from all she knew and from which she is still suffering . . .
And Poppy's not the only one with a secret. Each of her new friends at the factory is hiding something painful. Vera Shadwell, the forelady, has had a hard life with scars both visible and concealed; her sister Daisy has romantic notions that could get her in trouble; and Sal Fowler, a hardworking mother who worries about her two evacuated boys for good reason. Bound by ties of friendship, loyalty and family, the devastating events of the war will throw each of their lives into turmoil but also bring these women closer to each other than they could ever have imagined.
Lately I'm becoming more and more of a sucker for books set during World War Two. Having a love of history as I studied it as part of my degree there is just something about books set in this time that calls to me. This year I've read quite a few some good some bad but I am pleased to say Secrets of the Singer Girls was a joy to read from start to finish. It's not all lightness and fun but the trials and tribulations are nicely balanced with humour and happiness. For a début novel Kate Thompson has written an insightful, gripping read that had me racing home from work just to find out what would happen next. Everything was put aside as I was keen to discover would the Singer Girls get the fulfilment and contentment they so richly deserved or would bigger events have lots in store for them? I spent several hours lost in the world of these remarkable women as they navigated the highs and lows of life during World War Two. These women were gutsy, courageous and loyal and how they coped with the range of issues thrown at them is only to be admired. This book despite some of the subject matter had a bright, vibrant cover and the two girls on the front showed how two of the main characters were in direct contrast with each other. The sign subtly placed in the background 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' was an apt touch as this was a motto well used during war times.
Set in 1942 Secrets of the Singer Girls follows four polar opposite women all connected through their job. They work in a factory called Trouts under the eye of foreman Archie Gladstone. Here they sew bandages for field hospitals and repair soldiers uniforms. They earned the name in the title because they sing as they work on their Singer sewing machines which helps the women through the long shift work. Poppy Percival is a naive 16 year old recent arrival to the East End from the countryside. She is running from something and all she has known is a life in the scullery of a rich house. Turfed out for something unknown, even her own mother can't wait to be rid of her. Oh how I felt for Poppy as she climbed the stairs of the factory with trepidation to start a new chapter in her life. Everything she had known was turned upside down and how she must have been so fearful as to what awaited her. But soon the girls of the factory take her under their wing and over the course of the book we see a true transformation for Poppy as her courage grows and she realises she must look for happiness.
Vera and Daisy Shadwell are two sisters who couldn't be more different. Vera as forelady of the factory has to retain some authority on the floor. But you could see she had a softer side although the scars of the past still affected her. She was so kind to help Poppy out in anyway she could even though her home life under the hands of her father Frank was not at all in the least bit comfortable. Underneath it all I sensed she was lonely and afraid to let certain things go, having to take over the role of mother figure to Daisy at a young age must also not have been easy. Vera was always watchful and on edge and if she could only relax and let love and friendship in her life might have become more positive. Daisy is in stark contrast to Vera, a wildfire out for a bit of fun and to make the most of life in a bad situation. I loved Daisy's attitude on first glimpse of the American GI's 'Food may be rationed, but at least men aren't anymore'. Meeting and falling in love with African American soldier Robert puts Daisy in a position that will test every ounce of strength she has. But will her friends be there to support her through thick and thin?
Finally we have Sal Fowler, an East End woman through and through. Her husband is away fighting in the war which is only a good thing. The suffering, abuse and depravity inflicted on her by a brute is now a distant memory. Also Sal's two boys have been evacuated to the countryside to save them from the bombing. How awful for any mother to have to do that with their children but her job and friends help Sal stay strong. One thing that I liked about this book was that it didn't focus solely on Poppy and her story, instead it weaved the secrets of all four girls together to make for a gripping, fast paced read. There was not one character that was weaker than the others as can often happen with multiple main characters. I cared for them all and each woman's storyline was realistic for the time.
To be honest I can't find fault with this book it engaged me from start to finish, it inspired emotions in me that often never come across when I am reading a book. It was obvious what passion Kate Thompson had for her story and all the twists and turns were nicely done as the layers were peeled back and the surprises left me open mouthed. These four women were brave, daring and heroic with such indomitable spirits that proves friendship, family community spirit will get you through anything despite what little you may have.
In an end note Kate Thompson mentioned how she wanted to pay tribute to the essence of community, loyalty and camaraderie the people of Bethnal Green and the East End had. Well with Secrets of the Singer Girls she has achieved all this and more. All these sentiments radiate from the pages and give you that warm glow inside that despite rough times friendship and strong bonds always win through. I was delighted to see on the very last page that we will return to the East End next year and meet more characters with interesting stories to tell. Only a year to wait for Secrets of the Sewing Circle but I am already counting down the days as the girls of the East End have won a special place in my heart.