Keep calm and carry on? That motto could have been written for—or even by—chirpy English World War II–era journalist-wannabe Emmeline Lake, whose remedy for conflict, both worldwide and domestic, is to do what she can, as well as she can.
Innocence and perky optimism are tempered by less sunny feelings over the course of British novelist Pearce’s debut, which opens with a relatively upbeat evocation of World War II London as experienced by 22-year-old legal secretary Emmy. Fond of larky contemporary expressions and capital letters—“I gave what I hoped was a plucky Everything Is Absolutely Tip Top smile”—Emmy yearns to be a Lady War Correspondent and finds a new job at Woman’s Friend magazine. But her duties turn out to include destroying problem-page letters on unacceptable topics (“Premarital relations, Extramarital relations, Physical relations,” etc.) on behalf of her boss, battle-axe agony aunt Mrs. Henrietta Bird. Warmhearted Emmy can't bear to leave these needy women's letters unanswered and begins replying to them in secret, forging Mrs. Bird’s signature. Matters turn more serious after Emmy has an argument with her best friend Bunty’s fiance, William, over his risky work as a fireman. Vividly evocative of wartime life, with its descriptions of bombed streets, frantic fire stations, and the desperate gaiety and fortitude of ordinary souls enduring nightly terror, Pearce’s novel lays a light, charming surface over a graver underbelly. With its focus on the challenges and expectations placed on those left behind, it also asks: Who is supporting the women in a world turned upside down by war?
Although the jauntiness and feel-good tone can grate on occasion, especially during the farcical wrap-up, this is a readable, well-intentioned, very English tribute to the women of the homefront.