Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce review – Letters from the home front
A plucky female heroine helps a war-torn London in a highly original debut
AJ Pearce: Echoes of the innocent antics of ‘The Four Marys’ abound
Dear Mrs Bird
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 the kind of protagonist who demands a possessive pronoun, a 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: fiancé 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.”
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 woman’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 likeable 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.