This is a wonderful, memorable story and a fascinating glimpse into a part of history of which I was not aware.
In July 1946, the British aircraft carrier HMS Victorious traveled from Sydney to take 655 Australian war brides of British servicemen to Britain where their husbands awaited them. More than 1100 men also were on board. The young women had married British servicemen serving in Australia during the war. When the author discovered that her grandmother had actually been one of these brides on the HMS Victorious, she resolved to create a story from it. She envisioned four young women from very different backgrounds who were thrown together in a small cabin for the journey.
Avice is a wealthy society girl, and “desperately disappointed” that her bunk mates have a lower social standing than her own. Maggie is heavily pregnant, and charming. She worries she won’t be a good mother, because her own mother abandoned her. Frances is a nurse, very quiet, and seems to be carrying a secret. And Jean is only sixteen, and probably married too young: she is wild, indiscreet, and not immune to the flirtations of the sailors.
The girls are guarded in the their bunks at night, and Frances becomes friends with the marine, Henry, who stands nightly in front of their door. Henry has received a devastating letter from his wife back home. But neither Frances nor Henry confide their secrets to one another.
As the story progresses, we become familiar with the tensions affecting everyone cooped up together on the ship. Some of the tension was among the brides, with Moyes especially picking up upon the class snobbery that prevailed at the time. There was also a sexual tension between the brides and the men. Many of these girls hadn’t seen their husbands since the night they wed them – in some cases several years before. And the men of course had been deprived of the company of women for quite some time. There was also tension coming from the husbands back in Britain: upon receiving word that their wives would be coming, some sent telegrams to the ship succinctly advising: “Not Wanted Don’t Come.” Any woman about whom the message was directed was dropped off at the next port, where a representative of the Australian government would make arrangements for her to go back home. All the brides dreaded getting the call to the Captain’s office.
The Captain is close to retirement age, and “at sea” about what he is to do next. He is also plagued by a war wound that he dare not admit bothers him, but it has gotten so bad he fears for his survival. And now he has to deal with all these women, with their lingerie hanging to dry on lines around the ship, having to come up with entertainments for them, the occasional trysting, and so on. Moyes limns him so well you can almost hear his heavy sighing as you read the book.
Although the voyage only lasts less than six weeks, some of the lives of those on board go through radical changes. Matters come to a head for the protagonists just as the ship nears the port of Plymouth.
Evaluation: The characters are so good – I felt sad at the end not to be able to hear more about them, especially Maggie and Frances. Moyes always makes me care about characters and think about them long after I finish a book by her. In addition, another of the ways in which Moyes is so excellent is that she always manages to throw complete surprises into what you assumed was a predictable plot. And finally, the exceptionally skilled way in which Moyes takes readers into that aircraft carrier so that we feel we too are experiencing every aspect of the trip is so rewarding – as Emily Dickens said, “There is no frigate like a book….” What a happy double entendre for this reading experience.
First published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton, 2005; published in the U.S. by Penguin Books, 2014