published 2013 set in 1940, so one of our WW2 books
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
‘You might as well have them. My figure hasn’t been the same since Claudie,’ said June, her own hands encircling her still slender waist. ‘Don’t suppose I’ll ever get them on again, I’ll make myself some bigger ones as soon as I can get my hands on some more silk.’
Knickers. Two pairs of swirling gossamer knickers – handstitched, cream-coloured, as French as you like – beautifully ironed and giving off the faint, prickling scent of mothballs.
‘Oh, June… can I… do you really...?’ Peggy held their softness to her face, and couldn’t believe her luck.
‘Have them…they’re a piece of cake to make, as a matter of fact. Look…. It’s just a big circle really, with another cut out from the middle. That’s how you get that nice floaty effect. On the bias. I’ll teach you that too, if you like.’
Peggy gave June a huge kiss, and she laughed again.
‘It’s just a couple of pairs of knickers… hardly the crown jewels! But I’m glad you like ‘em.’
‘Oh I do. I really do. I can’t wait to try them on.’
She couldn’t believe her luck, on every front. It had to be a good omen, didn’t it?
observations: I never really know what defines a Young Adult (YA) novel: that’s the category for this book, but it seems to me it is just a historical novel, good for everyone, and very interesting. It has a very specific setting in time and place: Romney Marshes in 1940. The UK lives in terror of an invasion by the German Army, and this is one of the coastal areas most likely to be a landing-place. Syson does a terrific job in making this very tense and scarey, given that we know it never happened: she really does make you think about the possibilities, and it’s a most sympathetic picture of how people felt.
Heroine Peggy is 16, and she and her mother and younger brother have moved in with an aunt and uncle on a farm. There is some mystery about where her father is. They work hard on the farm, and try to be good lodgers. But then a plane comes down in the Marshes, and Peggy finds the young Polish pilot Henrik, and for complicated reasons decides to help him hide – even though he is an RAF pilot, ‘on the right side’. As the summer wears on, she is sure she is falling in love with him. But everything seems hopeless….
The details of life seem truly authentic, they have the ring of conviction, and the book is very well-written. My only complaint would be that there aren’t enough light-hearted moments like the one above – and like the moment where Aunt Myra is revealed as sitting in the cellar during air-raids with a preserving pan on her head for protection. The subject matter is serious and sombre, but I could have done with more light relief. And although the final epilogue is satisfying in many ways, I thought some of the characters and situations were left unresolved, I’d have liked more information. But then that’s a tribute to the book’s ability to involve the reader.
The WW2 airfields on the East Coast also featured in Ellie Griffiths The Ghost Fields.
I was intrigued by the idea of the circular knickers, and couldn’t really imagine them: luckily, researching them brought me to the website Sew Vera Venus, which I highly recommend. Proprietor Jeanne gives detailed instructions on how exactly to make French knickers with this particular method – but that isn’t the half of it. Her website is full of the most beautiful clothes, vintage-style but designed and made by her, including a lot more amazing lingerie. Anyone with any interest in clothes should go over there straightaway – if you only look at one thing today make it this gallery. I guarantee you will be knocked out - after browsing her site I felt even more sorry than normal that I can’t sew at all – there are patterns and instructions for many of the items.
Jeanne kindly gave me permission to use the photos above.