18/09/2014

The Ship of Brides (by JoJo Moyes)

I have enjoyed books by JoJo Moyes, a writer whom I only discovered about five years ago. Her novels encompass a variety of topics, often with a historical dimension, and are very well written so I’ve started adding more of them to my wishlist. I received this one for my last birthday.

‘The Ship of Brides’ starts with an ambiguous and intriguing prologue, which didn’t make sense (indeed, I had quite forgotten about it) until nearer the end. This is followed by a scene full of action, set in 2002. A young British woman and her elderly grandmother are in India, doing some sight-seeing. The young woman is flouts convention and goes to visit a ship-yard full of discarded vessels; the old woman eventually follows her, and has an immense shock as she spots one of the rusting old ships...

The main part of the novel takes place in 1946, when a boatload of Australian brides are en route to the UK to be reunited with the husbands they married during the war. Although the characters are fictional, they are based on real people and the book is set around some actual historical events. At the start of each chapter is a brief quotation from letters or journals written by some of the people involved at the time. The author evidently did a great deal of research, and the general feel was of an authentic account.

At the start of the historical section we meet four of the Australian brides before they set out: the rather snobby Avice, of wealthy family; the nurse Frances, who has seen some terrible injuries; the cheerful (and very pregnant) Margaret, and sixteen-year-old Jean.

These four very different women find themselves sharing a cabin on their voyage, which is not on a liner but on a converted warship. The captain really isn’t happy about having hundreds of women on board, and some of his staff are not entirely sure how to deal with lively young brides.

Different chapters are written from the different perspectives of some of the main characters, giving a good picture of what life would have been like for these courageous women who crossed the world to be with their husbands, some of them uncertain whether they would ever see their home and families again. Worse still, some of the husbands were still on active duty - and some didn’t want their Australian wives. So there was constant stress there, quite apart from the unusual circumstances of crossing the ocean in cramped quarters.

I found the book interesting - it’s a part of history I knew nothing about - but as a novel, this didn’t really work for me. It felt more like a series of anecdotes than a real plot, and I didn’t warm to any of the main characters other than, perhaps, Margaret. I had forgotten all about the opening scene - perhaps I was supposed to guess what the relevance of the main part of the book was, but in the event it was quite a surprise to return to 2002 at the end. It was a satisfying ending which made sense, but didn’t feel like part of the book.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction that’s more anecdotal than having a strong storyline. The writing is good, as I have come to expect from JoJo Moyes, and at times I could almost imagine the situations. But somehow this book didn’t grip me. Still, perhaps I'll feel differently if I re-read it in another ten years or so...

Available in both paperback and Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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