Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1939. When war is declared, twins Shirley and Tom are evacuated to the coastal town of Worthing. Almost fourteen, they are very close to their mother, but leaving London is the only way to keep them safe. Shirley is the bright one of the pair, whereas Tom is sometimes slow to understand the world around him. But Shirley helps him get by and is his best friend and ally.
The twins are taken in by a local farmer, but their new home quickly proves to be far from a rural dream. Tom is forced to do back-breaking work and sleep under the stairs each night. The farmer's wife is heavily pregnant, and seems to live in fear of him. She's refusing all midwives, so it will be up to Shirley, with no experience in the matter, to help her deliver her baby.
Their new teacher at the local school notices that something is not right with the children, but the farmer keeps the twins from seeing anyone, even their own mother. As the cold weather sets in and Tom falls ill, will Shirley be able to find a way out for them both?
Always in my Heart was my first introduction to the writing of Pam Weaver. Pam writes in the family saga genre, a genre which seems to be only ever increasing in popularity. I love history and enjoy reading books in this vein but often I find some books can be absolutely brilliant and enthralling and others fail to meet the mark, for me I felt Always in my Heart fell somewhere in between. I thought the story did get better as it went along and a nice mystery element came into play but maybe it was just that little bit too long overall.
One thing that niggled at me and I'll get this out of the way by saying it earlier on was that I found the blurb to be quite misleading. For some both the blurb and the cover play an enormous role in their choosing to read a book. For me if it's an author I know and love I'll read anything they write no questions asked. When it's an unknown author to me I rely heavily on the blurb to give me a flavour/hint of what's to come in the book. In this case the book focuses on twins Shirley and Tom and how they cope with being sent away from their home to live in the country during the war as their mother is very sick and needs hospitalisation.
In the blurb of the book I had which to all intents and purposes appeared to be the final version it says the twins were thirteen. In the blurb on Amazon it says they were nearly fourteen. Yet in the book at the halfway point they celebrate their sixteenth birthday. I understand it mightn't be a huge issue for some but in this case I felt the ages of the twins did have a bearing on how I viewed them as characters in terms of their actions and how they dealt with the events imposed upon them. I do think this is one thing that shouldn't slip through the radar as definitely Shirley acted way beyond her age for the majority of the book. In fact I almost forgot she was as young as she was considering how sensible and wise her character was.
I think the blurb gave me the wrong impression of the book that it was all very sinister. Yes in parts it was but that was not the overall feeling I took from the book. It also mentioned Tom falls ill, I must have missed that part because I don't remember that section at all bar an event towards the end which couldn't be classed as illness. Putting these issues I had aside this was a good book overall even if I felt it took it's time to get going and establish itself.
The story opens in August of 1939 as the country waits on tender hooks to see if war will be declared against Germany. There is unrest in the air and everyone is fearful at what lays ahead. Florrie Jenkins runs her own newsagents/tobacconist and has twins Shirley and Tom. Florrie's husband abandoned them when he discovered Tom wasn't 100% and since then Florrie has done her best to keep everything going.
But times are changing for everyone and things come to a head when she has to admit to herself that she is not well and needs to be looked after. A year away from her children will be incredibly difficult but if she wants any hope of a long and happy life she must do this. I did like the fact that once Florrie went away for her treatment that her character wasn't forgotten about as we had plenty of chapters told from her viewpoint. We could witness the daily struggles she was going through and gain a deeper appreciation of how she was feeling being separated from her children and friends. I think she knew she was doing the right thing but that really didn't make it any easier for her. I enjoyed how in the latter half of the book we got to know her character and her back story even further and there were a few revelations I would have never seen coming.
If the story wasn't focused on Florrie then it was Shirley and Tom we were learning more about. Shirley has always been Tom's protector and she remained that way for most of the book. Tom saw the world in a different way and often couldn't decipher or read between the lines as to what people were saying. He took things too literally and was very vulnerable but his character was written to perfection and with such sensitivity and it was good to see this topic being tackled in a family saga book because children with these issues did not just appear in the last number of years although the way in which they are treated and helped now is so much more positive than in the past.
When the twins are evacuated, partly because of the threat of bombing and because of their mother's illness, they do not want to be separated so the only person who will take them is farmer Gilbert Oliver married to Janet. The couple live on the outskirts of Worthing and Janet is expecting her first baby. Gilbert throughout the story came across as cruel and heartless and a person who was only out for himself giving no care or consideration to others. He was a pure bully for whom the word love didn't seem to exist in his vocabulary. I couldn't even say he presented one side to the world and then another behind closed doors because he didn't. Shirley, Tom and Janet lived in a word of fear because of him and I wished with all my heart he would get some sort of comeuppance for his menacing and inhospitable ways.
The strongest character of all was without question Shirley. When push came to shove she stepped right up and took matters into her own hands. She could see changes needed to be made and her determination would not be beaten down by the cruelty to others. She hated being away from her mother but could see how Tom was flourishing in a different environment surrounded by animals which became a huge passion for him. I enjoyed how Shirley developed a close bond with Janet and they were able to comfort each other and work together and what was just as good was that Shirley was strong and not weak and there wasn't romance splashed throughout the pages.
This really wasn't that kind of book as a more sinister, mystery element came into play. Questions started arising and I wanted the answers. I was guessing at things and trying to pull all the pieces together. In some ways this aspect of the story came out of nowhere but then when I stopped and thought about it the clues had all been subtly laid I just wasn't quick enough to piece them all together. Shirley came across as being much older and wiser than she was. She had a lot of responsibilities but she dealt with them well in a mature manner.
Always in my Heart was an enjoyable enough read. I would read more from Pam Weaver maybe not straight away as I didn't rush to get something else from the author once I had finished this book but in the future I would look to see what else she has written. Despite the slow start and parts which I felt brought nothing to the story, the day trip away to the seaside being one of them, the later half brought the story forward a lot more and it turned out to be a better read than I had expected based on my judgement of the first half of the story. The mystery and suspense element was great and in the end the title was apt for the book. If you have a few spare hours on a sunny day you'd enjoy some time in the garden with this book.
Many thanks to Ed PR and Pan MacMillan for my copy of Always in my Heart to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.