Allen & Unwin Australia 2020
This is Caroline Beecham’s third historical fiction novel. Set mostly in 1943 London, it is a tale of baby farming, betrayals, friendships, war-time and the publishing industry.
Held together by the novel’s heroine, Alice Cotton, who works in a London publishing house and who finds herself inconveniently pregnant, the story delves into the grim reality of unwedded motherhood at the time. It is largely driven by Alice’s quest to find her baby, taken from her almost immediately after her birth – Eadie.
The novel also explores the way that the book publishing industry had to struggle for survival in the face of rationing of supplies whilst at the same time being recognised as an important propaganda and morale tool, and essential entertainment for those waiting to be deployed or sitting out an air-raid in an Anderson shelter or other public space.
There are underpinning themes of friendship and betrayal, of the nature of love – maternal and other. The author draws on historical and medical/psychological fact in depicting the Alice’s plight and the deplorable conditions for infants taken to baby farmers. However, this is a skilful weaving of fact and the story-teller’s art. We are very willing to be drawn into Alice’s life, her predicament, her desire to continue in the job she loves, her need for love and protection, her reluctance to trust.
The contrasting of the regular Londoner’s situation with that of the New York society set is graphic. Theo is the vehicle for this aspect of the story; he is the young employee of the parent firm run by the London manager’s brother, sent to engineer the shutting down of the London office. Finding himself beguiled by both the London milieu, Alice and her colleagues, he is terribly torn in deciding where his loyalties and his passion lie. He, like Alice, is a dedicated bibliophile.
A charming aspect of what in parts is a decidedly grim tale, is the exploration of the way that the London Zoo continued to stay open throughout the war. There is a precious family connection for Alice and she creates a beautiful notebook about the zoo with anecdotes and sketches she longs to share with her lost baby. Nice plot devices see the notebook take on a significant role in the discovery of truth, as well as infusing a sense of celebration and a tension breaker as the story reaches its end.
As with many aspects of family life in the real world, inter-generational stories are manifested on the innocent for years to come. And thus it is with Alice. Making sense of this does help her heal, but forgiveness is a more difficult commodity.
Caroline Beecham, with great facility, carries us along in this story. She evokes the people and the period with a deft touch and respect for authenticity. It’s an absorbing read that increases to a gallop as the denouement approaches, we as breathless as the actors to see it through.
The book is a worthy addition to the growing collection of World War 11 stories, grassroots histories that take us well beyond the military and official accounts, and into the lives of the citizens of the places where war was waged. Its focus on ‘women and children first’ at last brings those voices to life.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for sending me a review copy.