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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Books – All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

Star rating – 6/10

They say that everyone has a novel in them – and fair play to Joan Bakewell for publishing her first at the age of 74. Cards on the table – I really admire her as a broadcaster; cultural and ethical commentator; and as a woman. I have recently read her excellent autobiography ‘The Centre of the Bed’, and enjoyed it immensely. I have enormous respect for her.

So I wanted to really enjoy this Second World War romance – and I did enjoy it. I read it in a couple of days – eager to find out what happened. But it would not be honest of me to say that I found it without fault. Maybe because I was so recently acquainted with some of the details of her own wartime story, the parallels with her own experiences were a bit obvious for me. The imaginary town of Staveley, positioned between Manchester and Liverpool , is a device which seems to be a bit clunky here.

The novel tells the story of a girls’ grammar school adopting a ship during the war, and of the relationships which develop between both the school as a whole, and in particular the romances that blossom between two of the pupils; their head mistress and three of the crew. There are some very touching moments in these stories, and Bakewell does bring to life the morals and values of the time, and how they stifled both women and girls, especially those who openly challenged social mores. She deals with real issues such as pregnancy outside marriage; adultery and adolescent sexuality well before the sexual revolution that was to follow in the 60’s.

The parallel modern day story she tells of the daughter of one of these women, who gradually uncovers hitherto secret elements of her own personal history, does not work quite so well. Bakewell also seems to be packing a lot of social history into the tale – almost making it feel like a visit to the Imperial War Museum.

But it is a good story, told with feeling and with honesty, and I did maintain an eagerness to find out what happened to the main characters. It might have been better to stick to the telling of these tales via a more detailed autobiography. Bakewell has written her novel. It is good - but not great. But she is still a great role model for any young girl.

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