Book Review | The Safest Place in London | Maggie Joel
“Walk a mile in my shoes … see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel … then maybe you’ll understand why I do what I do … until then, don’t judge me.”
The above expression encapsulates this latest novel by Maggie Joel, as she brings us a touching and poignant tale of two families who get caught up in a London air raid in 1944, changing their lives forever – six people who will become victims of circumstance with no black and white answers to any of the questions raised by the reader.
Divided into two parts, the novel opens with Nancy Levin and her three year old daughter Emily, just about to sit down to dinner when the air raid siren goes off and they have to make their way to a shelter. Not long after, we are introduced to Diana and Abigail who are lost and trying to find a shelter in an area they are not familiar with.
As these two women from vastly different social classes wait for the all-clear to sound, their fear and loneliness is palpable when it becomes apparent that the night will be a long one, with the unused tube station at Bethnal Green becoming their shelter for the duration. When a large incendiary bomb drops on the shelter, lives will be altered when one of them is forced to make a heart-wrenching decision.
In the second part of the book, we are introduced to Joe Levin and Gerald Meadows, the women’s husbands, who have returned to London in the midst of the chaos that has taken place, only to be left reeling both by the memories of the horrors of the war they have been fighting and the fact that their hopes of finding their families look grim.
Told from their viewpoints it soon becomes apparent that desperate choices, unforeseen circumstances and relationships will combine to show us that no matter how distinctly different we are, we are all connected.
This one kept popping up on my Facebook newsfeed and when I first saw the cover, I was instantly drawn to it but even more so after reading the blurb and I couldn’t wait for it to get to the top of my reading pile because WWII stories have always fascinated me.
This one intrigued me even more because it held the promise of suspense and, whilst I finished it some time ago, it’s one of those reads that I needed to simmer for a while in my head. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was an outstanding read but it’s one that’s not easy to review for fear of giving something away because of the way in which Maggie has so intricately layered it.
The subject matter is also very different to any other WWII book I’ve read before because the war is not the main subject but merely a backdrop that highlights the impact that war can have on the human race, the complexities of human nature in a fight for survival, the struggles of those that become morally afflicted and the emotional fallout and consequences of shameful choices made. Whilst some readers may be uncomfortable with the moral complexity of these characters, I found this part of human nature fascinating!
One of this novel’s greatest strengths is its sense of time and place with Maggie evoking this period in London’s history brilliantly by painting a portrait of what life must have been like – from the rationing, the blackouts, trudging the war-torn streets, the hunger, endless hours spent sheltering from the bombs, searching for loved ones, to the desperate measures that people resorted to in order to survive and the harsh realities that most of them faced.
Maggie's characters are also well drawn and she portrays all of them with sympathy by profiling the marriages and the manner in which the war has forced these families to separate, thereby showing their vulnerabilities and shedding light on the difficulties they experience once reunited.
Without being preachy, the scope of people that were affected by WWII (or any war for that matter) is hard for you and I to imagine but no doubt a reality and this is a story that needs to be read with an open mind and with no judgments as to what we may think is morally correct because some thought-provoking questions are raised, such as how many other people committed these same acts in similar circumstances; where do we draw the line between right and wrong, moral or immoral; and, what would it take for your morals to fall by the wayside?
Difficult questions, I know! But ones which her amazingly distinct narrative voices raise by the sheer complexity of emotion and reasoning of characters who have been challenged by unimaginable hardship and grief.
A page turner that is both emotionally engaging and involving, Maggie Joel has penned a unique albeit bittersweet tale with a compelling human story and complex moral dilemmas at its heart, showing us that good people can be placed in impossible situations. Highly recommended.
I wish to thank Allen & &Unwin for providing me with a hard copy ARC for review.
Maggie Joel is a British-born writer who grew up in a small commuter town in southeast England. She studied marketing and advertising in Southampton, on England’s south coast, and worked for a number of years in the marketing and events industry in London before moving to Australia in the early Nineties.
She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Media Studies) and a Master of Arts (Literary Theory and Creative Writing) both at Sydney’s Macquarie University and became an Australian citizen in 1998.
Maggie has been writing fiction and non-fiction since the mid-1990s and her short stories have been widely published in Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland and Canberra Arts Review, and broadcast on ABC radio. Her first novel, The Past and Other Lies, was published to critical acclaim in Australia and New Zealand by Murdoch Books in April 2009 and in the US by Felony & Mayhem Press in 2013 and was chosen as the Sydney Morning Herald’s 'Pick of the Week'.
Her second novel, The Second-Last Woman in England, was published by Murdoch Books in Australia and New Zealand in 2010, in the US in 2011 and in the UK by Constable & Robinson in 2013. This book was also selected as the Sydney Morning Herald’s 'Pick of the Week' and was awarded the 2011 Fellowship of Australian Writers' Christina Stead Award for Fiction. Her third novel, Half the World in Winter, was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in October 2014.
Maggie currently lives in Sydney and works as the operations manager at a federal government agency.
About the Book
Two frightened children, two very different mothers, and one night of terrifying Blitz bombing during World War Two. And when the bombs stop falling, which families' lives will be changed forever?
On a frozen January evening in 1944, Nancy Levin, and her three-year-old daughter, Emily, flee their impoverished East London home as an air raid siren sounds. Not far away, 39- year-old Diana Meadows and her own child, three-year-old Abigail, are lost in the black-out as the air raid begins. Finding their way in the jostling crowd to the mouth of the shelter they hurry to the safety of the underground tube station. Mrs Meadows, who has so far sat out the war in the safety of London's outer suburbs, is terrified - as much by the prospect of sheltering in an Eastend tube station as of experiencing a bombing raid first hand.
Far away Diana's husband, Gerald Meadows finds himself in a tank regiment in North Africa while Nancy's husband, Joe Levin has narrowly survived a torpedo in the Atlantic and is about to re-join his ship. Both men have their own wars to fight but take comfort in the knowledge that their wives and children, at least, remain safe.
But in wartime, ordinary people can find themselves taking extreme action - risking everything to secure their own and their family's survival, even at the expense of others.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2016