A buoy­ant do-gooder in a vi­o­lent world

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GILMARTIN

DEARMRSBIRD AJ PEARCE Pi­cador, 320pp, £12.99

In her witty, de­cep­tively sim­ple de­but, AJ Pearce con­jures up a world of courage and per­se­ver­ance that seems sadly alien to mod­ern life in the West. Set dur­ing the Lon­don Blitz of the sec­ond World War, Dear Mrs Bird ex­plores the never-say-die spirit of a na­tion deal­ing with death and de­struc­tion on a mass scale.

Buck­ing up, putting the best foot for­ward and telling Hitler to “bug­ger off” are just some of the ways Pearce’s endearing cast shoul­der the war ef­fort on the home front. Even the weather helps out, as our spir­ited pro­tag­o­nist, Em­me­line Lake, goes about her busi­ness un­der “a weak but plucky sun”.

Em­me­line is brave, cheer­ful woman in her early 20s who cares far more about other peo­ple than her­self. With her charm­ing and light-hearted tone, she draws us eas­ily into her world of mis­un­der­stand­ings, med­dling and mad­cap sit­u­a­tions. Liv­ing with her best friend, Bunty (echoes of the in­no­cent an­tics of The Four Marys abound), Em­me­line is ever the op­ti­mist. The top-storey flat they share in a prop­erty owned by Bunty’s grand­mother means a fran­tic dash to the shel­ters ev­ery time the sirens go, but they are “aw­fully lucky to live there for free”.

On the ca­reer front, Em­me­line is equally up­beat, de­spite the rug be­ing pulled from un­der her. Dreams of be­ing a war re­porter are hu­mor­ously up­ended when a sought-af­ter jour­nal­ist po­si­tion at a national pa­per turns out to be typ­ing up the prob­lem pages for a tyran­ni­cal editor at Woman’s Friend. Things in the ro­mance depart­ment are no bet­ter: fi­ance Ed­mund sends a tele­gram from the front to say he’s run off with a nurse. At least he’s not dead, Em­me­line thinks. It is a sen­ti­ment right out of a Nina Stibbe novel, where the grimmest of sit­u­a­tions are taken on the chin.

In Dear Mrs Bird Pearce has a sim­i­lar tal­ent for hu­mour, us­ing her pro­tag­o­nist’s wide-eyed ob­ser­va­tions to suc­cinctly re­late char­ac­ter and at­mos­phere. Stony-faced Mrs Bird wears “an an­cient and vast fur coat, which gave her the ap­pear­ance of a large bear that had just failed to catch an es­pe­cially juicy fish”. Jaded jour­nal­ist Mr Collins lets slip that he’s been to a pop­u­lar bar: “Snazzy?” says Em­me­line. “I didn’t even think he would have known the word, let alone use it.”

Buoy­an­cyand­naivety

Em­me­line’s in­cred­i­ble buoy­ancy could eas­ily grate but Pearce clev­erly bal­ances it with an endearing naivety. From Hamp­shire, the au­thor stud­ied at the Univer­sity of Sus­sex. A chance dis­cov­ery of a 1939 women’s mag­a­zine be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for her first novel. In Em­me­line she has cre­ated a de­light­fully inad­e­quate nar­ra­tor, full of good­ness but op­er­at­ing in a most vi­o­lent world. It is left to the reader to sup­ply what the char­ac­ter can­not un­der­stand, and as she hur­tles to­wards her down­fall, we long to save her.

At work Em­me­line makes a flawed de­ci­sion to an­swer the letters that Mrs Bird re­jects, want­ing to help the dis­traught women who write in to the mag­a­zine. Con­sid­er­ing her­self lucky to have a best friend like Bunty, Em­me­line imag­ines “how aw­ful it would be with no one to lis­ten”. The de­ci­sion to an­swer the letters links with a sec­ond, more se­ri­ous story of the girls’ per­sonal lives and the cloud that hangs over the nar­ra­tive, and over Eng­land: all around them peo­ple are dy­ing, and some­day soon it might be them.

With a name and de­ter­mi­na­tion that calls to mind the suf­fragette Em­me­line Pankhurst, Pearce’s pro­tag­o­nist also pays homage to Austen’s Emma in her do-gooder ways and lack of self-aware­ness. The lik­able Mr Collins has echoes of Mr Knightly, though Pearce re­sists a neat ro­man­tic end.

Be­neath the breezy per­sonal nar­ra­tive is the grim re­al­ity of war, made all the more hor­ri­fy­ing in the details: “Tonight the sky was clear as any­thing. Mr Collins was right: the Ger­mans would be busy later.” Em­me­line wears her APS great­coat and vol­un­teers af­ter work on B Watch with other like-minded cit­i­zens: “I knew Thelma didn’t eat a thing so she could give more of her ra­tions to her chil­dren.” As the Luft­waffe shells the city in later sec­tions, the im­pact is re­lated in dev­as­tat­ingly sim­ple lan­guage: “I didn’t see his face, but I saw that his hands were gone.” And af­ter­wards, when the dust has set­tled and the deaths have been tal­lied: “I wanted it to be 10 sec­onds ago when I still didn’t know.”

The novel is ex­cel­lently paced, with a su­perb es­ca­la­tion in the fi­nal sec­tion as Em­me­line’s benev­o­lence comes back to bite her. Hav­ing been thor­oughly lulled into her world, we re­alise with a bang how much trou­ble she’s in. As the bombs con­tinue to fall on a city still five years away from the end of the war, we fully un­der­stand that Em­me­line is not the only one.

AJ Pearce: con­jures up a world of courage and per­se­ver­ance

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