Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce
Opening sentence: “When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst.”
Set in London during the Second World War, we meet Emmeline Lake, she dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent, so accepts a job at Woman’s Friend magazine to start her journalism career. However, rather than assisting on hard-hitting articles, what she actually finds herself doing is opening reader’s problem page letters, finding suitable ones to be replied to by the formidable Mrs Henrietta Bird.
Mrs Bird, Acting Editress of Woman’s Friend, only answers the acceptable letters, nothing ‘off-colour’ (affairs, sex, falling for the wrong man), which leads to 90% of them being torn up and, as far as Emmeline is concerned, the people with real problems never getting help. (The letters themselves are scattered throughout the novel and provide an interesting window into the issues people were facing in wartime London.) Emmeline decides to take matters into her own hands, what harm could come from her answering some of the letters herself? Mrs Bird will never know…
Dear Mrs Bird is packed full of 1940’s language (such as: ‘I could not have been more cock-a-hoop‘ and ‘I was here for a job working on Serious News about Vitally Important Things so I should jolly well buck up and go in‘) that really works to both transport you to wartime London and keep the overall feel charming and light. Growing up, I was a fan of Enid Blyton and this nostalgic language was a lovely reminder of those classic books.
The 1940’s tone is also there to enforce another element – this book’s wonderful celebration of the tremendous British blitz spirit, ‘There was something about planning a wedding that felt like one in the eye for Hitler. He could send over as many Luftwaffe planes as he liked, but he couldn’t stop people being in love and everyone getting excited.’ Taking shelter from bombs on a nightly basis was just a normal occurrence, so people didn’t let the harsh war conditions mean they led a life of misery, they still fell in love, forged out careers and went out with their friends – they were the epitome of making the best of a bad situation and this is a joyful thing to read about.
Also, with so many men enrolled in service overseas, London in the 1940s was a prime time for women to take centre stage and break through the sexist glass ceiling. Jobs not before open to them were suddenly a reality and they had the opportunity to prove they were equal to men in every way. Emmeline is a trail-blazer in this respect, mainly thanks to advice from her mother, ‘She said the cleverest thing is to let them assume you’re an idiot, so you can crack on and prove them all wrong. I loved my mother.’ Emmeline is a modern, forward thinking character who you can’t help but root for.
If you’re a fan of cosy, reassuring reads that touch-on serious topics, but in a good-natured way (a bit like a Sunday night TV drama), then this is the book for you. I appreciate the ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ style is not to everyone’s tastes, but I thought it was delightful. Yes, the story was a little predictable, but in a rewarding way – the ending was the one you wanted it to be. Dear Mrs Bird is a highly enjoyable debut novel and the perfect blend of an easy read that makes an intelligent point.
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC. Published 5th April 2018.