The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

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The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Bethany Creamer
Reviewed by Bethany Creamer
Summary: A promising debut with flashes of brilliance, marred by weak character development and an unengaging plot. It had the potential to be a great book, with a little refinement.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 226 Date: November 2016
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781539997061

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In July 1934, fifteen-year-old May Thomas's elder sister Sophie leaves their Wiltshire home in disgrace. May is left to appease her parents, Ma and Pa, determined not to stray down the same scandalous path as Sophie before her. May's good intentions are put to the test during a chance encounter with Christopher Barker, the enigmatic son of Colonel Barker, owner of the imposing Park House, known colloquially as Big House, and her father's boss. These chance meetings with Christopher spark a chain of consequences that lead May's beloved Pa to spurn her, believing her to be up to much the same mischief as Sophie had been. May comes to suspect that Christopher was involved in Sophie's dishonourable departure, though she finds it difficult to scorn him when there is something so deliciously tempting about him.

By 1940, the Second World War has broken out and May moves away from the Cotswolds countryside idyll to the dirty expanse of London to become a Wren. She takes on the dangerous task of a dispatch rider, facing the Blitz, blackouts and the unknown, sprawling streets of the capital to do her duty for King and country. In London, May is joined by her old friend Jan from back home but their paths fork as she becomes a typist, a job for which May lacks the necessary technological skill. May meets a whole new set of personalities, quite unlike the ones she left back home, including the smart, street-savvy boater Rene, who will introduce her to the decadent parties of the upper classes. Soon, kind-hearted sailor, John McKenzie takes an unexpected interest in May, leading her to question what she wants, whilst trying to banish thoughts of the distant Christopher Barker.

Fundamentally, The May Queen is a somewhat formulaic coming-of-age tale, set against the backdrop of family dishonour and the realities of life in war-torn Britain. Some of the characters, particularly those of Ma, Pa and Colonel Barker, are archetypes of the period. They are not multi-faceted, fleshed out beings and could happily slot into any book set in the 1930s and 1940s. It is difficult to understand their motivations fully as we do not get to know them very well, or appreciate the reasons behind their behaviour. However, the book does deserve praise for its inclusion of a same-sex romantic pairing, which are often erased from narratives set during the Second World War, and for the depth with which it describes the bond between the characters concerned.

Although the book is written in the third person, we almost exclusively observe events through May's perspective, which allows Young to withhold certain information from the reader because May herself does not know it. In this way, Young unravels the events at her own pace, leaving the reader in the dark and eager to read more in order to resolve the issues within the novel, chief among them is undoubtedly Sophie's predicament. The downside of this technique is that in the first part of the book, it is difficult for the reader to know what is going on. This could have been prevented if Young had introduced the Thomas family before Sophie's departure, giving us time not only to understand them as individuals but also their family dynamic. It is difficult to care about Sophie's disgrace when we have not got to know her as a character, she leaves in the first chapter of the book. Likewise, the Thomas family dynamic appears fragile from the off, which although occasionally contrasted with happier times in the odd anecdote, the reader does not have a direct example of them having a better relationship within the book itself.

I particularly admired Young's choice not only to set the novel in Britain, or the home front, during the war but also to focus mainly on the role of women in the war effort. This is often an area left omitted from the textbooks, or at best, mentioned briefly. The novel really shines in its description of the realities of living in the Blitz, featuring brief flashes of carefully crafted prose with an almost lyrical quality, such as: Out on the street people stood and watched. The heat had sapped the urgency to run, to hide, to crawl into hotter spaces than this one. And still they came. A great caravan of noise. Young is adept at setting the scene, at making the reader feel present in the environments she creates. She is let down by poor characterisation and a disjointed plot. If the characters do not feel like believable, fully-formed beings, it is almost impossible for the reader to invest in the plot. I personally feel that Young sacrifices some of this believability in favour of a romantic dilemma, which seems a contrived and convenient way of keeping May connected to the problems of her past. I would've preferred a little less of the twee romance in favour of more passages of razor-sharp depictions of May's developing friendships, particularly with Rene, which is one of the most promising and interesting areas of the book.

I do appreciate that romance may be one of the key factors that attract people to the book, and if you like it predictable and formulaic with something of a love triangle thrown in, you'll probably really like it. I just feel that this is an overdone trope and could've been handled better, particularly had we got to know May's love interests better, which would have lead the reader to be more invested in these romantic pairings, perhaps even rooting for one over the other. As it stands, the romance is something of a damp squib that tarnishes a novel that is more auspicious in other areas. It doesn't really get to the heart of what relationships mean to us, be them platonic, familial or romantic, as I was expecting it to do. It doesn't leave the reader with much to think about, which is where it really falls down for me, as it fails to bring anything new to the romance genre.

For a novel that elegantly deals with the conundrum of a woman caught between two men then pick up Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, you won't be disappointed. For more historical fiction with a touch of romance, check out the works of Pam Jenoff, her most recent novel, The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff, came out in February 2017.

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