"1942. Sixteen-year old Poppy Percival arrives at the gates of Trout's clothing factory in Bethnal Green, ready to begin a new life as an East End seamstress. Forced to leave her quiet countryside home, and banished to a war-ravaged London, Poppy harbours a dark secret - one that tore her away from all she knew."
It turns out that it's not just Poppy who's hiding secrets - most of the women she meets and befriends at the factory also seem to have secrets lurking in their past, and these are gradually revealed over the story.
I did find that the story took a little while to get going - the first character we're introduced to is meek Poppy, and in those initial few chapters following her perspective I found some of the descriptions a little lack-lustre and repetitive, and I worried that I was going to find the characters, story and settings a bit 'thin'. How wrong I was though. It was well worth persevering, as Thompson really hits her stride later in the book. The story gains so much momentum emotionally that I must have sobbed and sniffed through the entire last third of it! Some of the female characters - Vera in particular - are excellent, complex souls. I think the men, as secondary characters, aren't quite as well drawn, either being completely 'bad' or 'good'. Having said that, these are all things that I can easily forgive as long as there's a good story and the setting has been well researched.
Thompson has obviously done her homework, with some lovely references to wartime details such as baths in no more than 5 inches of water and 'squanderbugs'. The guts of the story is also very engaging, tugging on the heart strings with the relentless hardships that find the women, and I found myself turning pages faster and faster. It may not be a book full of pretty prose, but it excels as a narrative - something the last few 'literary' books I've read have been sorely lacking.
One not just for fans of the 1940s but also for those who enjoy tales of women triumphing together over adversity. The war-torn East End comes to life and Secrets of the Singer Girls has an emotional momentum that will keep you up late trying to finish it.
I received a copy for review, but as always, views are my own! Secrets of the Singer Girls is out now on Pan Macmillan.
P.S. Make sure you read the 'Writing the book' chapter at the end of the story, for an understanding of the real historical events and characters that inspired the book, including the civilian disaster at Bethnal Green tube station that claimed 173 lives.