This book is, quite simply, a joy. I read it straight through in two sittings, laughing out loud along the way. Funny, moving, courageous and ironic, Dear Mrs Bird is a treat. Don’t bother reading any more of this review – just take this to the till and buy it.
Still undecided? Oh, all right. Here are the bare bones of the story, and why Judy and I picked it for the book club.
Our heroine is Emmeline Lake (‘Emmy’). Emmy works as a London solicitor’s secretary but secretly dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter and, specifically, a war correspondent. It is the winter of 1940/41, so if Emmy achieves her ambition she won’t be short of stories to write. The war has come to her doorstep in the shape of the Blitz; nightly terror raids with Hitler’s bombers pounding London and other British cities.
But life goes on. One day, sitting on the bus home, Emmy sees an ad in the Evening Chronicle’s situations vacant column. The newspaper is looking for an office junior, and Emmy instantly and instinctively knows that this is the break she’s been looking for. She’ll apply for the job and she won’t take no for an answer. Soon, she’ll be rubbing shoulders with veteran journalists in the Chronicle’s newsroom, absorbing the thrilling atmosphere of a great newspaper at war. Before long she’ll be allowed out to cover breaking stories herself. She can see her by-line now – Emmeline Lake, Special War Correspondent.
She goes for the interview, and lands the job. Sadly, when she turns up on her first day things turns out not to be quite what she was expecting. It’s all a most unfortunate misunderstanding. Far from hacking it with the hacks, Emmy finds herself typing letters for the ghastly Henrietta Bird, the Chronicle’s battle-axe of an agony aunt. Mortified, embarrassed, and feeling incredibly foolish and naïve, she nevertheless decides to give it a go.
Mrs Bird has strict rules about the kind of readers’ letters she will allow. Any correspondence containing even a trace of Unpleasantness are tossed straight into the bin. By Unpleasantness, Mrs Bird means anything remotely connected to sex. Unwanted pregnancies; affairs; problems in the bedroom – all are strictly off limits. Mrs Bird is offended by even the sight of such letters: if Emmy accidentally passes one over she is roasted on the spit of Mrs Bird’s invective.
Mrs Bird makes for a strange agony aunt. She doesn’t ‘do’ sympathy, but briskly tells everyone to buck up and buckle down, whatever their problems. Emmy is appalled, and decides to secretly write back as Mrs Bird, offering private advice. Then, realising that her boss never even glances at her own column, Emmy goes a step further. She starts publishing Unpleasant letters and replying to them in print. Risky, but increasingly addictive.
The sub-plot to this story is Emmy’s relationship with her best friend Bunty, her growing romance with a dashing man away at war, and her voluntary night job at an air raid warden post. AJ Pearce writes vividly about the Blitz and communicates beautifully what is was like to be young and at imminent risk of being blown to smithereens, yet determined to carry on as normal – going to parties, dances, nightclubs and cinemas. But there is nothing nostalgic or ‘period’ about this book – part of its charm is that Emmy and Bunty’s lives have a curiously modern feel: young people are young people whatever era they live in, and in this book their unquenchable optimism in the face of the worst Germany’s Luftwaffe can throw at them – ‘BUGGER YOU, HITLER!’ they defiantly roar at the skies after a terrifying near miss – is infectious.
As Richard says – a joy.