12 July 2019
What a delightful read! I enjoyed THE GIRL FROM THE CORNER SHOP so much I have to add "The Girl in the Pink Raincoat" to my (ever-growing) list! I always enjoy a good WW2 historical fiction tale, though unlike Shirley Dickson in both her books, Alrene Hughes doesn't place a lot of focus on historical fact with the air raids or the war in general. It is more about a story set during that time. And an enjoyable one at that.
Helen Harrison is a young woman in her 20s who lives with her husband Jim, a fireman, above her mother's corner shop where also she works. It is approaching Christmas and Helen is looking forward to moving out of her mother's place and into a two-up two-down place with Jim in the New Year. When an air raid hits just as Helen is expecting her husband home from his shift and dinner about to go on the table, Helen and her mother take their meals down to the basement where they wait out the raid...which lasts 12 hours.
As a fireman with Manchester Fire Brigade, Helen knows that Jim would have gone back on shift as soon as the raid hit. By morning after that raid, Helen emerges from their basement and is shocked to see the city in ruins. She decides to take Jim a sandwich and a flask of coffee as he would be exhausted after the night. But nothing prepares her for what she sees as she approaches the city's centre. Buildings destroyed as fire rages.
A young policeman ushers her away, informing her it isn't safe and that she should return home. But instead, she decides to head to the fire station in case Jim has returned there. Upon arrival she learns the devastating news that will change her life. Jim is dead.
Helen runs home in a daze, through the shop door, past her mother and up the stairs where she flings herself on her bed and cries. When her mother appears demanding to know what's to do, Helen only just manages to tell her. And in a rare show of affection, her mother takes her in her arms as she mourns the loss of her beloved Jim.
It is at Jim's funeral that Helen's godmother, Pearl, offers her a friendly shoulder should she ever need it. She discloses that she too knows what it is like to lose the one you love and grieve their loss, having lost her fiance in the battle of the Somme in 1916. She told Helen that you never completely get over it but it does get easier.
In the days that followed Jim's death, life for Helen stifled in that shop with her mother was too much to bear. With never a positive word to say, her mother was overbearing and impossible and after one too many heated arguments, Helen packed her few belongings and moved into the little place she and Jim had planned on moving into in the New Year. With the rent paid two weeks in advance, Helen only had to find herself a job to enable her to continue living there. Remembering her godmother Pearl, Helen seeks her out where she offers her a weeks' work as a model in the Fashion Agency where she worked, followed by an office clerk filling in for the regular girl who was injured in the Christmas blitz - the same one that claimed her Jim
One day, Helen is the only person on the floor when a woman walks in inspecting the clothing and asking questions, which Helen answered as best she could and she left promising she would return with a large order. A few days later, she arrived at work to discover the place in disarray. The business had been robbed! All the stock from the basement had been taken and the boss was furious! Helen suddenly had a sinking feeling as she recalled the woman who came in that day wanting to place a large order. The police came to question her and Helen was surprised to find it was the kindly young police constable who helped her the day Jim died. Now a detective constable in CID, Ken Kershaw questioned Helen and took her to the police station where she was able to identify the woman from their mug shots.
It was during this time that Ken told her about the Women Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC) and that with her eye for detail and her courage she would make a great addition. They are always looking for women to join. Helen gave it some thought. But Frank, Jim's best mate and also a fireman, was livid at the prospect. She would be putting herself in harm's way and "Jim wouldn't want that".
However, as she found herself out of a job once again Helen began to ponder the good she could do as a WAPC. She certainly needed a job and feeling sure she could make a positive difference, she found herself at the Police Headquarters signing up to be a WAPC. After a successful interview, Helen then spent two solid weeks training before beginning an undertaking of a variety of duties assisting the police.
During the course of duties as a WAPC, Helen comes across a face she met briefly during her time with the Fashion Group at one of their after hours parties. Laurence Fitzpatrick. A doctor, no less, and a handsome one at that. Believing she would never see him again, when he sees her wedding ring she lets him assume she is married rather than a widow. She didn't want male attention or to marry again, so she didn't see the harm. But she does see Laurence again when she frequently visits a basement that houses women and children who have lost their homes during raids where he gives his free time as a doctor. As a WAPC, she is able to make a difference to these women and children, and help them get back on their feet again.
Then Helen is faced with her toughest challenge yet as a WAPC. But will it also be her last?
THE GIRL FROM THE CORNER SHOP is a tale of the past as it sweeps you up in the story and makes you feel as if you are there, alongside Helen. The setting, the era, the people - it was an accurate portrayal of how life had been during the war. Helen was a sheltered young woman who had been dominated by her mother throughout her early life. Some may not be able to comprehend it but life was so different then by comparison to today. But it was during the war that women found their voices and their strengths to rise to the challenge and make the best of it by not only keeping the home fires burning but keeping life going as well. I found the portrayal of Helen to be an accurate one of a woman finding her wings after years of suppression.
THE GIRL FROM THE CORNER SHOP is the first book I've read by Alrene Hughes but I will be seeking out more by her in the future, adding "The Girl in the Pink Raincoat" and even her Martha Trilogy to my (ever-growing) TBR pile as soon as I am able to get my hands on them!
Beautifully written, THE GIRL FROM THE CORNER SHOP flows easily pulling the reader from the first page right through to the last. A tale about life, love, work and new beginnings, Helen's story unfolds under the clouds of the darkest days during WW2. Over the course of a year, we witness Helen go from being under her mother's stifling hand to growing her wings and learning to fly amidst every obstacle thrown in her path. A beautiful, heartwarming story that I did not want to put down!
I highly recommend this beautiful story for fans of historical fiction.
I would like to thank #AlreneHughes, #NetGalley and #HeadOfZeus for an ARC of #TheGirlFromTheCornerShop in exchange for an honest review.