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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • “A delightful debut.”—People
For readers of Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II.
As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Chilbury Ladies' Choir
MRS. TILLING’S JOURNAL
Tuesday, 26th March, 1940
First funeral of the war, and our little village choir simply couldn’t sing in tune. “Holy, holy, holy” limped out as if we were a crump of warbling sparrows. But it wasn’t because of the war, or the young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine, or even the Vicar’s abysmal conducting. No, it was because this was the final performance of the Chilbury Choir. Our swan song.
“I don’t see why we have to be closed down,” Mrs. B. snapped afterward as we congregated in the foggy graveyard. “It’s not as if we’re a threat to national security.”
“All the men have gone,” I whispered back, aware of our voices carrying uncomfortably through the funeral crowd. “The Vicar says we can’t have a choir without men.”
“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely at a time when we need it most! I mean, what’ll he disband next? His beloved bell ringers? Church on Sundays? Christmas? I expect not!” She folded her arms in annoyance. “First they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.”
“But there’s a war on,” I said, trying to placate her loud complaining. “We women have to take on extra work, help the cause. I don’t mind doing hospital nurse duties, although it’s busy keeping up the village clinic, too.”
“The choir has been part of the Chilbury way since time began. There’s something bolstering about singing together.” She puffed her chest out, her large, square frame like an abundant Field Marshall.
The funeral party began to head to Chilbury Manor for the obligatory glass of sherry and cucumber sandwich. “Edmund Winthrop,” I sighed. “Only twenty and blown up in the North Sea.”
“He was a vicious bully, and well you know it,” Mrs. B. barked. “Remember how he tried to drown your David in the village pond?”
“Yes, but that was years ago,” I whispered. “In any case, Edmund was bound to be unstable with his father forever thrashing him. I’m sure Brigadier Winthrop must be feeling more than a trace of regret now that Edmund’s dead.”
Or clearly not, I thought as we looked over to him, thwacking his cane against his military boot, the veins on his neck and forehead livid with rage.
“He’s furious because he’s lost his heir,” Mrs. B. snipped. “The Winthrops need a male to inherit, so the family estate is lost. He doesn’t care a jot about the daughters—” We glanced over at young Kitty and the beautiful Venetia. “Status is everything. At least Mrs. Winthrop’s pregnant again. Let’s hope it’s a boy this time round.”
Mrs. Winthrop was cowering like a crushed sparrow under the weight of Edmund’s loss. It could be me next, I thought, as my David came over, all grown up in his new army uniform. His shoulders are broader since training, but his smile and softness are just the same. I knew he’d sign up when he turned eighteen, but why did it happen so fast? He’s being sent to France next month, and I can’t help worrying how I’ll survive if anything happens to him. He’s all I have since Harold passed away. Edmund and David often played as boys, soldiers or pirates, some kind of battle that Edmund was sure to win. I can only pray that David’s fight doesn’t end the same way.
The war has been ominously quiet so far, Hitler busy taking the rest of Europe. But I know they’re coming, and soon we’ll be surrounded by death. It’ll be like the last war, when a whole generation of men was wiped out, my own father included. I remember the day the telegram came. We were sitting down for luncheon, the sun spilling into the dining room as the gramophone played Vivaldi. I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother’s body as she hit the floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware.
Now our lives are going into turmoil all over again: more deaths, more work, more making do. And our lovely choir gone, too. I’ve half a mind to write to the Vicar in protest. But then again, I probably won’t. I’ve never been one to make a fuss. My mother told me that women do better when they smile and agree. Yet sometimes I feel so frustrated by everything. I just want to shout it out.
I suppose that’s why I started a journal, so that I can express the things I don’t want to say out loud. A program on the wireless said that keeping a journal can help you feel better if you have loved ones away, so I popped out yesterday and bought one. I’m sure it’ll be filled up soon, especially once David leaves and I’m on my own, thoughts surging through my head with nowhere to be let out. I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, and I suppose this is the closest I’ll get.
Taking David’s arm and following the crowd to Chilbury Manor, I looked back at the crumbling old church. “I’ll miss the choir.”
To which Mrs. B. roundly retorted, “I haven’t seen you instructing the Vicar to reverse his decision.”
“But, Mrs. B.,” David said with a smirk. “We always leave it up to you to make a stink about everything. You usually do.”
I had to hide my smile behind my hand, waiting for Mrs. B.’s wrath. But at that moment, the Vicar himself flew past us, trotting at speed after the Brigadier, who was striding up to the Manor.
Mrs. B. took one look, seized her umbrella with grim determination, and began stomping after him, calling, “I’ll have a word with you, Vicar,” her usual forthright battle cry.
The Vicar turned and, seeing her gaining pace, sprinted for all he was worth.
JENNIFER RYAN is the author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane and lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.