Sometimes a book comes along at just the right moment in life. This was the case with Dear Mrs Bird, a spirited wartime romp that I read back in cold, wet November when my spirits needed A Jolly Good Talking To (as Mrs Bird herself would advise).
Set in 1940s London and with the Luftwaffe making nightly raids overhead, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. So when she seeks a job advertised at an impressive newspaper, she promptly quits her existing job and applies. Only it turns out the job isn’t for the newspaper at all but as secretary to the fearsome Henrietta Bird, acting editoress and redoubtable agony aunt at failing women’s magazine Woman’s Friend.
Mrs Bird’s requirements are very clear: letters containing any form of Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. And Mrs Bird’s list of Unpleasantness is very long indeed. As Emmy finds herself dismissing letters from love-lorn, grief-stricken and morally confused readers in favour of those asking for a good rationing recipe or help with unsightly ankles, she decides the only thing to do is to write back to the conflicted readers herself.
Make no mistake, this book is a romp through and through. To start with, I even wondered if it was a pastiche because there’s just so much sugar in Emmy – she’s the epitome of the Blitz spirit and, as a result, her narrative voice is very Famous Five jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer. Stick with it though because, behind all the mustn’t grumble stiff-upper lip is an irresistibly funny and very moving novel about friendship, growing pains and the importance of being kind.
I loved Emmy as a character – she’s spirited and funny and a little bit daft. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast from Emmy’s sarcastic boss to her sensible best friend Bunty – and not forgetting the formidable Mrs Bird herself of course, who never speaks when she can shout and never shouts when she can bellow.
Underneath all the high-jinks though, there’s a real sense of daily life in wartime London, both from Emmy’s own experiences and the letters of the readers she responds to. As the book progresses, Emmy begins to realise that you can’t always rely on Keeping Your Chin Up and Carrying On Regardless. There’s some particularly evocative descriptions of the blitz that, for me, are only rivaled by those I read in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And there’s definitely sections of the book that made me cry just as much as other parts made me laugh out loud – the deft lightness of touch that allows the story to work on so many levels is a real compliment to the author, especially as this is a debut.
Overall though, this is a heart-warming and spirited read that would be perfect for anyone who enjoyed Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Yes, at times it’s so quirky that it verges on the twee but some books you read for pure pleasure and this is most definitely one of them. Heart-warming and irresistible, this is a warm hug of a book that’s perfect for cheering dull spirits and brightening a wet, cold afternoon.
Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce is published by Picador Books on 05 April 2018 in hardback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advanced eproof in return for an honest and unbiased review.