The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day

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The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An evocative story set in the nineteen fifties which had this former visitor to Blackpool smelling the salt again. With a good story line and excellent characters it's highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: May 2008
Publisher: HarperPress
ISBN: 978-0007269396

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Each year Jack Singleton books next year's holiday and pays the deposit before he leaves the hotel, so it's no surprise that Jack, his wife, Ruth and daughters Helen and Beth are back at The Belvedere again. Beth's seven years old and not long out of hospital after an operation to repair a hole in her heart. Ruth thinks that she can keep her safe by dressing her in warm clothes, despite the July heat, and enforcing an afternoon nap. Sixteen year old Helen is longing for some independence but that's not on Ruth's agenda either. As for Jack, well he's got a secret of his own and he's finding it increasingly hard to cope with Ruth's demands that they buy a new semi-detached house, which would mean a mortgage.

When I started reading this book I wondered if it was going to turn out to be Behind the Scenes at the Museum for those with the misfortune of having been born on the wrong (western) side of the Pennines, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there might be similarities but the book stands well on its own. I knew Blackpool in the nineteen fifties (obviously only as a visitor from the right side of the Pennines) and Sallie Day has the town perfectly – the gaudy seafront and seedy back streets, the hotels and boarding houses struggling to make a living and the contrast with upmarket Lytham St Annes. The description of the pier, with the dodgems, the gaps between to boards through which you could see the sea and the rusting girders and brackish pools underneath left me with the taste of salt in my mouth.

I was more familiar with the Yorkshire woollen industry at the time, but the cotton industry had many of the same problems. Cheap imports mainly of inferior goods threatened the livelihoods of the weavers. Mills were closing and redundancy money wasn't yet compulsory. Even if mills were in a position to stay open it was obvious that new machinery meant that fewer skilled weavers were needed. Jack Singleton didn't fear unemployment though – his was a stranger problem. Already a foreman, should he take the Union job he'd been offered - or could his principles stand up if he took the job as manager of the mill and saw many of his own workers thrown out on the scrap heap?

The time, the place, the economic climate are all well done with little in the way of obvious exposition, but what made this book for me was the characters. Beth tugged at my heart strings straight away and it was easy to see Helen's dilemma. She wanted, deserved some freedom, but her over-protective mother looked likely to force her into deceit. It would have been easy to dislike Ruth, but despite her acquisitiveness, her social ambitions it was easy to see the unhappy and insecure woman underneath. But it's Jack who stars. Ruth isn't the love of his life but he's an honourable man trying to do his best by all his family and particularly the daughters he loves.

The story is a real page-turner and it really didn't work out the way that I thought it was going to. My heart was in my mouth on a couple of occasions too. A neat touch is the way that all the chapters are tied together by excerpts from I-Spy at the Seaside – and that brought back quite a few memories too!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you'd like more factual information about the nineteen fifties – and this book could well tempt you into finding out – then you can do no better than Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy. For further fictional reading have look at Behind the Scenes at the Museum or Private Papers by Margaret Forster. You might enjoy Murmuration by Robert Lock.

Booklists.jpg The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day is in the Top Ten Beach Reads For Girls.

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Kathryn Thompson said:

I grew up in Blackpool and was about the same age as Elizabeth in 1959. There were too many to 'glaring errors' in this book both directly about Blackpool and generally about the times.

The first thing that struck me was the prices mentioned.Harry Sykes handing over 5 shillings to buy two ice creams, the reference to a 3-bob bus fare from the outskirts of Blackburn to the town centre. Also the suggestion that Jack's wage packet contained somehwere way in excess of 20 pounds a week I have my doubts as to whether Quiche Lorraine was in anyone's vocabularly then, even if they had gone to cookery night school, but the term 'junk food' refered to later re.the hot dog certainly hadn't been invented!

The lack of research began to irritate me. A few seconds on google confirmed that Tupperware parties didn't happen in the '50's. The first one in the UK was in 1960 in Weybridge - rather later than that for such events to be heard of in Blackburn!

As to the particularly Blackpool references - probably too many errors to mention. The Blackpool Belle tram would only have been decorated as a Mississippi Steamer during the illumunations September/October - not in July. Timothy White's store wasn't here then - any shopping for household goods would have been in R.H.O.Hills which was a departmental store on Bank Hey Street directly behind the tower.

To go to St. Anne's on a tram would have been meant a longer walk from Squires Gate than the tram journey itself why didn't they get the bus?

I doubt that any hotel in Blackpool then had showers - a friend who grew up in the family hotel in Blackpool said they had 55 rooms, each had a wash-basin but two baths for the whole hotel. There would probably been rules about when the baths could be used too - certainly not after midnight! The idea of afternoon tea at the hotel is a little odd - high teas were served at about 4.30 so that guests with families could go to the first house of the many theatre shows. All arrivals were Saturday for a full week, no two night stays during the school holidays and, no matter what, sheets would not be changed during the week. It would be undreampt of to change the bedding daily in the 'married couple's' room.

I accept that all the above is perhaps 'nit picking' , but I do think that lack of research is insulting to the reader, and detracts from the feeling of the times. The error I found most 'glaring' though was fundamental to the story. The downturn in the cotton industry in 1959 Lancashire was being blamed on the popularity of nylon. The passion for nylon shirts etc. didn't happen until the mid 60's and continued into the 70's - when I went to college in 1972 I hated the landlady's nylon sheets. Oddly though Cora is said to be wearing 7 denier silk stockings when stockings are the one item that would be likely to have been nylon at the time! I would be interested in other people's obsevations.

Andrea Gregson said:

I think Kathryn may be right about the bus fares. I remember them being in pennies rather than shillings. But apart from that I can't see any problems with the research. I really enjoyed the book - especially the detail which seemed so right to me. I'm sure that different hotels were run different ways and I thought there were a lot of reasons given in the book for the cotton industry dying - cheap imports, not just nylon. Although my Mum says she bought nylon lingerie in the late fifties and she remembers Marilyn Monroe always wore classy stockings.

I suppose Cora, as a bank manager's wife would wear silk. But really we're taking about a piece fiction here not fact! I just felt that I was there with the characters enjoying their holiday in Blackpool.

I think the best part of the book is the characters. Ruth, especially. I hope there's a sequel - I'd like to find out what happens to all the characters - will Jack ever get to be with his first love? I think he might feel he has to stay with Ruth for the sake of his daughters. Do other readers agree?

Sue replied:

Since receiving Kathryn's comment I've been thinking about how important strict historical accuracy is in a work of fiction and I came to the conclusion that accuracy is good but some wavering from strict accuracy doesn't affect my enjoyment of the book. It certainly didn't with this one.

I think the figures quoted are probably about five years early - thinking back they tally with my memories of the mid-sixties rather than the end of the fifties.

I loved the characters too - they stay with you. I suspect Jack is well and truly cemented into his marriage. Part of it is the children - but the mortgage will have a big influence too.

Frank said:

Like Kathryn, I too did a double take with a few things…I grew up in St Anne’s, and Blackpool was my playground.

Definitely no showers then…or the cappuccinos that were referred to in the book! The Quiche Lorraine would also have been unheard of.

I also had pleasant surprises…e.g. being reminded of Redman’s the grocers, The I Spy Books, the Golden Mile ‘freak shows’. The donkey rides and crowded beaches with deck chairs.

I enjoyed the book, and felt that the author could have referred a lot more to the town’s delights, Winter Gardens, Tower, Stanley Park, and the Pleasure beach etc.

All in all a great read, I could almost smell the fairy floss, and the greasy fish and chips.