Wednesday 3 June 2015

Book Review: Secrets of the Singer Girls by Kate Thompson

Last Updated: 4 May 2021

Secrets of the Singer Girls by Kate Thompson book cover

AD* | 1942. Sixteen-year-old Poppy Percival turns up at the gates of Trout's clothing factory in Bethnal Green with no idea what her new life might have in store. There to start work as a seamstress and struggling to get to grips with the noise, dirt and devastation of East London, Poppy can't help but miss the quiet countryside of home. But Poppy harbours a dark secret - one that wrenched her away from all she knew and from which she is still suffering...

And Poppy's not the only one with a secret. Each of her new friends at the factory is hiding something painful. Vera Shadwell, the forelady, has had a hard life with scars both visible and concealed; her sister Daisy has romantic notions that could get her in trouble; and Sal Fowler, a hardworking mother who worries about her two evacuated boys for good reason. Bound by ties of friendship, loyalty and family, the devastating events of the war will throw each of their lives into turmoil but also bring these women closer to each other than they could ever have imagined.

Set in 1942 during the Second World War, Secrets of the Singer Girls follows the story of sixteen-year-old Poppy Percival. Turning up at the gates of Trout’s clothing factory in Bethnal Green, Poppy has no idea what her new life holds in store for her. It doesn’t take long for the dirt, noise, and devastation of East London to make Poppy miss the peace and quiet of the countryside back home. But Poppy harbours a dark secret, one that wrenched her away from the only life she knew and threw her straight into this unfamiliar new world.

However, Poppy isn’t the only one with a secret. Each of her new friends at Trout’s is hiding something, from hardworking mother Sal to young Daisy the hopeless romantic. Even Daisy’s sister, the uptight forelady Vera, keeps the worst of her scars hidden.

This is a story of hardworking, cautiously optimistic East End women, bound together by newfound friendship, family, loyalty and love. The devastating effects of the war throw each of their lives into turmoil and change their world forever, but also bring them closer than anyone could have imagined.

As usual, when I’m sent a copy of a book to review, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I was expecting a light-hearted historical novel, so I wasn’t entirely wrong…

The thing I liked most about Secrets of the Singer Girls was its historical accuracy. It’s clearly been well-researched, especially with the inclusion of events like the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. The author accurately portrays a little-known tragedy, effectively helping to bring it further into the public eye through her work. She also managed to deal with the strong emotions relating to the disaster brilliantly, tastefully handling the story.

The book is a great mix of genres, combining historical fiction, romance, and women’s fiction perfectly. Add to this the many unexpected twists and turns, and a surprisingly bittersweet ending, and you have a read that’s worthwhile yet definitely still enjoyable.

I enjoyed learning about the characters and their backgrounds, but I did find myself wishing that they didn’t all have secrets. The fact that everyone was hiding something got a bit predictable for me, even though most of the secrets turned out to be pretty integral to the storyline. Also, I hate to say it but I found the main character, Poppy, annoyed me a bit at times. She was just too timid, and I couldn’t fully engage with her. Similarly, some of the other girls, the lesser characters, started to turn into stereotypes. They became nothing more than stereotypical character roles – the loud one, the flirty one…

Also, a few little bits niggled at me. Without giving away spoilers, at certain points throughout the book I felt that things started to become unbelievable. There were a few predictable moments (the couple will get together, the feud will heal, the family will be reunited, etc) and sometimes characters did things that seemed a little out of character for them, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.

This is very much a pro-women story, as most of the men in the book are bad in one way or another, but there are some exceptions. Still trying to avoid spoilers, I loved the way that Poppy and Freddie met, though I can’t help but remain sceptical about how realistic that situation would have been. Still, I thought it was sweet and it satisfied my inner romantic, so I’m not really complaining. I also loved the character of Robert and his relationship with Daisy. An example of the age-old star-crossed lovers, Daisy and Robert have ideas far ahead of their years, dreaming about a time when a black man and a white woman have a future together.

The characters and the plot are mostly equally as strong as each other. It’s a fast-paced read but isn’t breakneck speed, and it’s a really well-written book. The overarching theme of friendship is uplifting despite the setting, as it reminds us that love always triumphs in the face of evil.

Reading the book, you can’t help but think of the real East End women who inspired it. Despite the devastation and terrible things happening, these women remained positive through it all. They are the real heroes of the story, and Secrets of the Singer Girls is a worthwhile credit to their memory.

Rating: 4 stars

Secrets of the Singer Girls by Kate Thompson is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned).

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* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

Will you be reading Secrets of the Singer Girls? Let me know in the comments below!

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