All The Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

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All The Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: Packed with vivid historical detail, Joan Bakewell's fictional debut is a touching family saga with a nautical twist. Its weak point is its characterisation; however, it still remains an interesting read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844085309

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At 74, this is veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell's debut novel. The double-stranded story juxtaposes the WW2 experiences of a genteel girls' grammar school, its adopted Merchant Navy ship and crew and resultant romances, with an academic's search for her past in the run-up to British troops being sent to Iraq.

In terms of research and period detail, All The Nice Girls is exemplary and would make an useful resource for teens studying this period in school (there's even a substantial bibliography allowing for further research). What I found particularly interesting was how social attitudes were conveyed; the reader gets a sense of the desire for social change in the wake of wars that blighted two generations, contrasting with the horror and astonishment of 'social betters' resisting these changes in the name of patriotism. I was grateful for some insights into my own mother's dogged loyalty to the Labour party which doubtless arose due to her experiences during WW2 – I thought wryly of her as I read.

Less successful is the characterisation; the novel is peopled with an odd mix of stereotyped cyphers and interesting, yet under-realised characters. This gives it something of a Mills and Boonian air at times. This is most unfortunate, as the plot, while predictable, is handled skilfully, and the historical detail is, for the most part, a delight for lovers of historical fiction.

It's also romantic in a way this crusty reviewer found palatable. Even though the resolution in the closing chapters was somewhat predictable, I did find a tear in my eye while reading the closing page - and that doesn't happen very often.

I'd be surprised if this novel isn't picked up for television serialisation – this may even help the characterisation with careful casting. It's also quite a visual piece of writing, and the nautical scenes in particular would make great TV drama. If this happens, Joan Bakewell's painstaking research will make it easy to accurately create the mise-en-scène.

Thanks to the nice publishers, Virago, for sending the Bookbag All The Nice Girls. This reviewer enjoyed it, and hopes Ms Bakewell will put her admirable research skills to work for more fiction in the future. Her mature years give her an overview of this period other writers often lack.

If you like reading about the social history of WW2, Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing is a fascinating Mass Observation record. For fiction set in this period, Bookbag enjoyed The Girl From World's End by Leah Fleming. For fiction by another veteran which took our eye you might like to try The Gardener by Prue Leith.

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