Category Archives: Everest, Elaine

'The Woolworths Girls' and 'Atonement': Two Reviews

You can find these two books here: ‘The Woolworths Girls’ by Elaine Everest and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.

I can’t tell you how long it’s taken me to get those two links up and running, using the iPad and Premier Inn wifi on one bar!  I’m disappointed only to be able to give you the Amazon link for ‘Atonement’ but I’m sure that the Booker short-listed author will survive.

A strange coupling, you might think, and an accident of circumstance that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time – together with Sally Quilford’s ‘Dark Marshes’ which I will continue next.  I don’t often read more than one book at a time, but I found that each provided relief and contrast to the other, particularly making me think about  what is Lit-era-ture and gets one on the Booker shortlist.  It also led me to ponder a Facebook post by Sally Quilford of a few days ago, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing.  Sally writes genre fiction, and does it very well, with numerous books to her name.  (This pathetic wifi won’t allow me to look it up and find out exactly how many.)  But Sally, who has taught me in the past, is now embarking on a creative writing degree at OU, amongst other things, to confront the dreaded literary genre.  (Whoops.  Literary is the opposite of genre fiction, isn’t it?  Wash your mouth out, Charlie!)

‘The Woolworths Girls’ is about girls working at Woolworths, as you would expect.  It’s a great concept for a novel, which, together with the girls in purple uniform on the cover, was what attracted me to it.  It seems to attract a lot of other readers too because I was sixth in the queue for this title when I reserved it on Overdrive.  Set in the Kentish Town of Earith and at the outbreak of World War 2, it chronicled the fortunes of Sarah, Freda and Maisie, in love and war, literally… but not literaturely.  This was genre fiction.  It had a distinct womag feel, actually.  Like all successful, traditional stories for women, it had a warm family feel at its centre. Ruby Caselton, Sarah’s grandmother, was the rock to which all the girls resorted in times of trouble, although I did wonder exactly how many rooms she had in her semi in Earith.  The storyline rattled along, admittedly with huge gaps between plot happenings, improbabilities and some things which didn’t ring true.  For instance, why weren’t the girls called up for war service, as my mother was, and made to join the women’s forces, the Land Army or work in a munition factory?  But the characters were well-defined, distinct and belonged to their era.  In fact, they displayed a valiant wartime spirit.  The only character who didn’t work was Sarah’s snobby mother.

‘Atonement’ is set roughly in the same period, but in a Woodhouse-lookalike country house,  with less self-belief than Woodhouse and less likeable characters, even though  each character was described in tedious detail.  I understand, from a novel-writing site I’ve been visiting recently, that authors should write down answers to a hundred questions for each character; McEwan did his hundred – and more – for all characters, I’m sure.  He also described every setting minutely, taking, in one instance, three pages to tell us about the scenery as two charters walked from the country house to a lake, then related the incident, which was the reason for the scene, in about one page.   I must admit, Dear Reader, that I skipped a lot, and I don’t think I missed much.  This lack of balance bothered me.  There was another section, one meandering event after another, describing the retreat to Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force, which went on for chapters, without saying very much, or rather making pints that could be made in one chapter – I skipped the latter part of that too.

In our family, ‘Atonement’ is one of those stories that everybody loves to hate.  I found it better than I expected.  After the boring soldiery bit, the story moved on to nursing in London during the war, which I found much more interesting, but that may just be my personal taste.  At this point we also got to the actual ‘atonement’ itself, which promised to be exciting, but failed, in my opinion, because it wasn’t properly justified.  I have to say I found the plot unbalanced because it took us about 200 pages to get to the inciting incident, there was no proper crisis and the resolution took place too quickly.  So that’s Literarure.  That said, for a writer, there is much to learn from McEwan’s descriptions, even if there were too many of them.

So we have to go and start off our day now.  We’re going to Hardwick House in Mansfield.  I’ll finish with a photo of the inside of the Richard III Centre in Leicester, which is housed in the building of the school where my dad used to teach.

RIchard III Centre, Leicester, relict of  Alderman Newton Boys School.