The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Anna Karenina

I read this book through the night, slept a few hours and woke up happy. Considering the countless number of books written and read on war, leading to war, during the war and post war, my expectations were moderate. This book did me a world of good, especially during a low period in my life. It reminded me that while death might be the reality, I still need to get on with the business of living, so there is not a moment to lose, or to regret.

The book has a whole lot of motley caste living in Chilbury village – an overbearing, patriarchal, brutal father with a cowering mother and two beautiful daughters, normal in every way, except they have just lost their eldest son / brother to a war submarine explosion. Brigadier needs a son to keep the wealth in the family, fortunately his wife is pregnant. The book opens at the funeral and choir is at the centre of it all.

We go through the book via a series of letters written between friends, acquaintances and sometimes banal correspondence, as well as daily diary notations. Chilbury is left mostly with women and old men to fend for themselves, with men gone off to the war or killed during the war. Choir without men is unimaginable but a choirmistress, a force of nature brings it together and convinces the ladies to continue singing, to relieve the stress, the pain and boredom of the war all around.

“Sometimes the magic of life is beyond thought. Its the sparkle of intuition, of bringing your own personal energy into your music”

The story progresses as the choir leads to amazing performances and stands out by winning a competition at a church with candles abound, what with war blackouts and no organ available due to lack of electricity. Choir goes on to perform in various villages to help uplift the spirit of people suffering through bombed existence, loss of loved ones and lack of, well, everything. Though the book is not just about the choir but the lives of the choir group. How the group sticks together to support each other, creates a sense of community for those left behind and grieves together for the ones lost forever, by remembering them and celebrating their lives.

Without giving away too much, the story unfolds with a baby swapping scandal, unwed pregnancy, billeting woes and children losing their parents. Some things remain the same, war or no war, greed knows no bounds, gold diggers continue on their path and sometimes life takes strange turns and coming of age is both heartbreaking and painful.

I am glad I read this book and at this moment, too. “Realising that you’re going to die actually makes life better as its only then that you decide to live the life you really want to live, not the one everyone else wants you to live. And to thoroughly enjoy every minute”

Thank you for the reminder dear author!

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