The Little Wartime Library – Kate Thompson

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Hachette

FEB 22, 2022 | 9781529395402 | RRP $32.99

Subtitled: A gripping, heart-wrenching page-turner based on real events…

So in essence, I should have known…I rarely request an adult title to review (and generally speaking, that’s a memoir/bio)… but the ‘library’ bit got me in. Really, I should have seen that, even though it’s based on real events, the sub-title was a give-away that it is more chick lit than historical fiction. And this is sad, because I think it could have been a fabulous historical fiction and still engaged readers of lighter fiction.

I picked it up this week after ploughing through a number of middle fiction titles, and gave it the last four nights of my attention but, for me, it became harder going each night. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with it if you are after a light entertainment/escapist read – and who doesn’t in these weird and trying times? – but I was expecting more of the historical and less of the popular fiction tropes. There are some fascinating facts woven in but there is far more emphasis on the personal life of the characters, all of whom I found quite predictable and almost trite.

Young war widow Clara runs the Bethnal Green underground library, assisted by Ruby – cue bad girl with a heart of a gold. Clara becomes involved with conscientious objector but decorated ambulance officer, Billy and Ruby is being pursued by Eddie, the Yank with the penchant for buying up stacks of books. The ‘residents’ of the underground are amiably East Ender enough to be entertaining and Clara’s boss, the pole-up-his-bum misogynist, Pinkerton-Smythe plus the matriarchs, her own mother plus her mother-in-law are nasty enough villains of the piece. Ruby’s life is blighted by the abusive step-father who seems set upon killing her mum with his drunken rages. There are the inevitable tragedies e.g. death of a child and also an elderly regular patron separately via Hitler’s buzz bombs and other historical events such as the crush of people trapped in the underground stairs. There are children who are parent-less, there are children who are deprived, there are families with nine kids and an old man constantly drunk – it’s all very resonant of the social strata of the district in that time period. Clara faces much opposition for her part in empowering women in matters such as birth control and, in that sense, it takes a lot from Call the Midwife plots.

The final forty pages where the author describes her interaction with veterans of this period, collating eye-witness accounts and researching the actual history of the two men who ran the library is the best part of the book (why not write about them?) along with the quotes from librarians that head up each chapter.

I don’t want to put you off – even though it sounds that way – because really if you want an enjoyable Eastenders type read, you will love it. I, for whatever reason, was expecting a more meaty and true account of a fascinating and little-known aspect of the war years and so, remain disappointed.

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