Reviewed by Emma Crowley
During the Second World War, life in the iconic Bryant & May match factory is grimy and tough. Annie, Rose, Pearl and Millie carry on making matches for the British Army, with bombs raining down around them.
Inspired by the Dig for Victory campaign, Annie persuades the owners to start Bryant & May allotment in the factory grounds. With plenty of sweat and toil, the girls eventually carve out a corner of the yard into a green plot full of life and colour.
In the darkest of times, the girls find their allotment a tranquil, happy escape. Using pierced dustbin lids to sieve through the shrapnel and debris, they bring about a powerful change, not just in the factory, but their own lives.
As the war rages on, the garden becomes a place of community, friendship – and deceit. As the garden thrives and grows, so do the girls' secrets . . .
Many thanks to Jess Duffy from Pan MacMillan for my copy of The Allotment Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Allotment Girls is the fourth book by Kate Thompson and in my mind her best. Initially, it did take me a few chapters to become fully immersed in the story and the lives of the characters who work at the Byrant and May match factory in East London during World War Two. But once all the introductions of the various characters had been made along with snippets as to their backgrounds, I found the story really got going and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact it seemed to be a very quick read and before I knew it I had reached the end of the book, I would have loved for it to have gone on for longer and it's not often that I say that.
The Allotment Girls was different from any other wartime saga book I have read as it focused on Bow in the East End of London and how one group of girls took the advice of 'Digging for Victory' to heart. The author had clearly undertaken detailed research into the area and the time and also as to how allotments became so important that almost any spare patch of ground, window sill or roof was turned over to the production of vegetables of some sort. The book opens with very wise words from the gardening correspondent of the Listener in February of 1940 'The very essence of gardening consists of rooting out and destroying all the evil things, and cultivating and developing all that is good and beautiful in life'. Never was a truer word said and these words could almost be used as a comparison between what was going on in the war as the evil of Hitler needed to be rooted to with the utmost of urgency and what the group of women were doing in the grounds of the match factory.
The opening chapters introduce us to the characters that we will come to know, love and root for. Pearl has lost her job in Liverpool in the Byrant and May match factory, the iconic building has been bombed. But for Pearl this loss is a new beginning, why she needs this new start we do not know. She disappears to London hoping people will think she has been killed in the bombing. Pearl then seemed to be forgotten about for ages until she eventually meets the group of women who will become firm friends. She lands a job in the London branch of the factory and soon acclimatises to her new life but she is forever looking over her shoulders. With Pearl, there was always a wariness and a reluctance to reveal everything. I had minute inklings as to what could have happened to her but when the truth finally emerged it was very shocking. I never in the slightest blamed her for her actions in the later chapters of the book as in this case it was brilliant to see someone get their just deserts.
Pearl was brave to make the decision she did and then stick with it, uprooting herself from her life especially during war time when all anyone wants around then is love and security. Luckily she was welcomed into the warm embrace of Elsie and the girls and they quickly treated her as one of their own. There was never any pressure on her to explain her situation or share her a confidence. It's clear people living at the time going through experiences that were far from the norm on a daily basis led people to expect others for what they were. Constant questioning of Pearl wouldn't have made her confess so I was glad Annie, Rose, Millie and Elsie just let her be but yet when Pearl needed help they were all there for her in an instant.
Millie Brown aged only 21 is still very young but yet she is already married to Curly Brown. Curly is a gangster through and through and I couldn't see why Millie was with him unless it had been a forced marriage of some sort. Curly is coarse, rough, aggressive and a menace. Millie lives under a cloud of sadness and fear of retribution. She puts on a strong front to all her friends at the match factory and dresses to impress as she steps outside her front door but this bravado does not extend behind closed doors. How can she possibly get herself out of the desperate situation she finds herself in? But it was encouraging to see a brighter spark develop in Millie as we journeyed with the girls. A chance encounter sees her putting her marriage woes to one side and again like Pearl I didn't blame her for wanting some sort of happiness given the power Curly constantly exerted. Times were tough enough anyway without always experiencing anguish and desperation at home. I was delighted to see Millie seeking and finding some solace and comfort although I think she did get a lot more than she bargained for but how she handled everything was more than admirable. Millie always had high hopes for her future but Curly put paid to that but maybe she can have different dreams and aspirations which will help her through the most challenging years of the war.
Annie lives in Bow in East London. She alongside her younger sisters, who have been evacuated, have been raised by her Nan Elsie since the death of her mother. Her father is now a prisoner of war but Annie and Elsie must keep the home fires burning and remain strong and confident that good will win out over the evil seemingly determined on permeating all walks of life and corners of the world. The East End is such a changed place since the outbreak of war with countless buildings lying in rubble, no children safely playing on the streets and no flowers dotted around only vegetables occupying every available spot of ground. Night after night of bombing has left the area a shell of what it once was. But despite the Blitz raging on the people of the East End have spirit and determination and life will go on as best it can. Annie feels a deep love for the place she calls home and also a loyalty and protectiveness. For her these buildings and structures are more than just bricks and mortar, it is where she truly belongs.
Elsie was the matriarch of the story a community leader full of spirit, love and support, and all the girls looked to her for advice. She was a stalwart in the toughest of times and had such ingenuity about her. One thing though was I couldn't understand her fierce opposition to Annie and Rose working at the match factory. I know the work was dangerous but surely every bit of money that entered the house was needed and by working Annie did feel she was doing her bit for her country. I had hoped if and when the reasons for Elsie's stance were explained that I would feel they were worthwhile and justifiable.
Rose is the final member of the group who come to mean so much to each other. A group where they can enjoy each other's company as they work on the factory floor but also when necessary problems and issues can be shared. Rose, not dissimilar to to the other girls, does have a very tough life apart from the rigours that the war brings. She lives next door to Annie and Elsie and was adopted by Maureen as a young baby. Maureen was an absolute horror whom I couldn't warm to at all, she treated Rose with such disrespect that it almost verged on hatred. Unconditional love was certainly never offered from her. Never was a kind word uttered only constant put downs issued. She was rude and obnoxious and a bully of the highest order. Rose should not have had to endure this and there were several times I thought she was on the verge of breaking free from the constraints and shackles that surrounded her. But she never had that courage of the final conviction to go through with it or else her loyalty to her mother was just too strong. I understand the love Rose had for her mother but really should a grown woman have to experience such malice at every corner. I couldn't understand how nice Elsie was to Maureen either. If it had been me I would have left her on her own to manage after all she clearly didn't have Rose's best intentions at heart where as her close friends did.
What did strike me was that the work the girls partook in making and packing the matches must have been so monotonous. How could they have done such tedious work hour after hour, day after day and continue to demonstrate such camaraderie and spirit. It just shows how these women wanted to do their bit for the greater war effort and keep up the sense of pride they have in their country. I enjoyed reading of all various girls problems but its when Rose gets permission to construct an allotment in the grounds of the factory that the story took on another level and all the little mini plots working away in the background began to come to fruition.
Pride in the girls neighbourhood began to come to the fore and their love and compassion for growing vegetables and nurturing things from beginning to end with the goal of alleviating some stress on the ships coming into the country with goods. There was a real sense of everyone working together with one common aim and at the same time the same thing was happening in the girls lives. The allotment was set up as a place to escape the daily onslaughts of war but in time it offered a sense of purpose, a bolt hole but then things get all too much as personal traumas and events make their way on site. The question is are the women strong enough to weather the storms ahead or will everything just get too much and they fall, suffer and crumble?
Throughout the story Millie and co always put on their best face despite all their trials and tribulations and that sense of friendship and unity is what makes this a very special read and one which will stay with the reader for a long time once you have finished. How the prologue and ending connect was just so beautiful if very sad to read about, it was poignant but also fitting and did bring a tear to me eye. If you love wartime sagas then this is definitely the book for you.