The Safest Place in London: poignant, realistic, and so very plausible

September 7, 2016

Author: Maggie Joel / Reviewer: Kelly Lyonns

Synopsis: (Allen & Unwin 2016) Two frightened children, two very different mothers, and one night of terrifying Blitz bombing during World War Two. And when the bombs stop falling, only one mother and child emerge from the shelter. In wartime, ordinary people can find themselves taking extreme action – risking everything to secure their own and their family’s survival, even at the expense of others.

Review: Okay, I admit that this is not the kind of book I would naturally pick up to read. The blurb and cover had already warned me of impending tragedy. So I put on my stiff upper lip and prepared for the worst in that overcrowded, cold, dark, smelly half-finished tube station. But first chapter in and I put down my tin hat and gas mask. I was hooked.

I just had to know what weak, frightened upper middle class Diana Meadows was going to do in that shelter full of the poorest of London, eyeing her expensive handbag, fawn gloves and real fur collared coat.

What possessed her to leave the safety of the suburbs and take her little girl to London? In a country where women stepped up in every area left vacant by men serving in the military she has even failed at growing a vegetable garden. I found myself muttering ‘Come-on woman, man-up’. Especially when sitting right next to her was Nancy Levin who has learned to cope, who has “even, on occasion, gone out at dawn scavenging in bins and in the gutters for whatever she might find”; who Diana thinks of as “fearless and splendid”.

As the tense tedious hours crawl by, the story cleverly backfills our character’s lives. There is a social commentary floating beneath the narrative. It is a vastly different war being experienced by the ‘better classes’ compared to the poor.

“A child born during a war in the downstairs room of a house in Odessa Street had realistic expectations about her life and the options that were available.”

Despite this, Diana and Nancy’s similarities start to show – both have no family, married their first love and are now raising a child their husbands have barely met.

Nancy and Diana don’t exchange a single word, but a lattice of little irrevocable decisions funnel them into the tragic pivotal moment. You can’t help reflecting on all of your own “if only …” and “what if …” moments.

I was not prepared when the bomb went off, even though I knew it was coming. For a few sentences I was as confused and deafened as anyone else. I re-read those words a few times, rummaging about in the rubble sorting out who was alive and who wasn’t.

I was surprised when the book broke into a second section and we joined Gerald’s tank crew trundling about in North Africa. Although we found out all about his war, there was no loitering. In no time we flew back to England and the rest of the story, where the threads were swiftly pulling together.

The ending was poignant, simple, realistic, messy and so very plausible. After all, what else could anyone do? “It’s this damn war.”

It left me with a dozen questions. In this interwoven story of families there is a hint of unfinished tales as if there could be a return to their story in the next generation. The secret might be buried for now, but eventually someone is going to ask questions.

A well-woven web of characters and situations in an entertaining, fast-paced tale. Readers of historical fiction and drama would enjoy this.

Rating: 4 ½ stars Four and half stars

With thanks to the publisher for a copy provided in exchange for an honest review

Connect with the publisher, Allen & Unwin – here

Connect with the author, Maggie Joel – here

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