This is an adult novel set in a girls’ school, a genre I like. The narrative is divided between 1942, when the bombing of the title takes place, and 1963, the year of President Kennedy’s assassination. Goldwyn’s is a prestigious girls’ school in Exeter, headed during the war years by the redoubtable Miss Cunningham-Smith. The school is targeted during the Baedeker raid on Exeter and the boarding house destroyed. The girls have to be accommodated and four of them are sent to a hostel which is part of the nearby university. Here we meet Robert Gunner, mathematics lecturer, unable to fight because of a crippled leg and whose war work consists of looking after his students and fire watching. He is glad to take ‘the children’, until he realises they are teenage girls. Four girls in an all-male environment? Hormones rage, with long-term consequences.
Tragic events take place which I’d be spoiling the story by revealing but for one of the girls, Alma, the losses are more than any teenager should have to face. Move forward to 1963. Miss Cunningham-Smith has died unexpectedly, to be replaced by new broom Miss Yates, intent on making her mark on the place. Her diktats reminded me of some I met in my own teaching days, whether it’s telling the staff how to dress: ‘I mean, Miss Braithwaite, that I do not consider it appropriate for you to be out in public without stockings. Our days of hardship and deprivation ended with the fifties, as I’m sure you know. We are entering a period of prosperity. Bare legs indicate poverty and loose living.’ or asserting her superiority to her staff: ‘Miss Yates is wearing a mortar-board and black gown over her clothes. She’s clearly making a point, since most of the staff have teaching diplomas rather than degrees.’
Miss Yates has an enemy, Alma, who has returned to her old school as head of music and still lives in her old home. Fiercely loyal to the memory of Miss Cunningham-Smith and opposed to any changes Miss Yates wishes to make, she is set on a collision course which ends in a hysterical scene. It’s clear that Alma has been severely damaged by the events of the war and that Miss Yates (who has secrets of her own) is right when she says, ‘I don’t know why you stay here, clinging to the past. Why don’t you move, go somewhere new, find a place where you’re not weighed down by it?’ Robert Gunner reappears, still lecturing and with a daughter at the school. He gives the same advice, ‘You must move on from the past. The war destroyed so much for all of us, but there’s nothing you can do about it except move on and find other ways to enjoy yourself. Remember how you used to love dancing?’ Will Alma change? The ending is rather inconclusive.
I did enjoy reading this book, which is a good reminder that only twenty years separated terrible events of the war from the early 1960s. Most people wanted to look to the future; it’s Alma who’s out of step with the times. I did feel that the two halves of the book (the narrative alternates between periods), didn’t hang together as well as they should. I was unconvinced by the passion for the Lindy Hop which takes over the girls and students, and by Miss Yates’ almost obsessive admiration for President Kennedy. I found Robert’s passion for lighthouses interesting but irrelevant. There are also a couple of glaring historical errors; I just can’t help noticing these when I’m reading. For instance:
‘Keep calm and carry on,’ says a solemn voice. (during the bombing), ‘Oh, shut up, Stephanie,’ says another. ‘That’s what it says on the posters,’ says Stephanie. ‘Are you suggesting Mr Churchill doesn’t know what he’s talking about?’
As any fule kno, that poster was not actually used during the war. Facts like these are easily checked. A good book which needed better editing. I liked all the detail about the school.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It will be published by Hodder on 27th March.