Annie Samson
Saturday, 27 April 2019

A J Pearce’s debut novel, Dear Mrs Bird  is written in characteristic British humour that lightens up even the most unfortunate, miserable moments

Set in wartime London in 1940, Dear Mrs Bird opens up with a description of the city’s notorious weather. It is one of those wretched afternoons when the day seemed to start getting dark before it had quite made up its mind to be light and even with two vests and a greatcoat on it was impossible to get warm.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Miss Emmeline Lake, a plucky gal who, if there was anything she wanted most in life, other than the war to end and Hitler to die a quite grisly death, is to become a journalist or to be more precise, a Lady War Correspondent.

Emmeline or Emmy is 22 and lives in a smart flat with best friend Bunty and desperately wants to become a reporter ever since she was 12 and won a trip to the local newspaper for writing a ‘dreadful poem’. She is the sort of person, who always had a notebook in hand, ready to sniff out political intrigue, launch difficult questions at government representatives or leap onto the last plane to send back vital reports of resistance and war. 

Emmy’s journalistic ambitions take a hit when she accidentally applies and is accepted for typing letters for a women’s magazine’s Agony Aunt column. The magazine head is an old tyrannical editor at Women’s Friend, part of a London-based publishing house that brings out the Evening Chronicle.

Emmy thinks she is applying for a position at the paper and imagines that very soon she would be rubbing shoulders with veteran journalists and seeing her own byline. However, she is mortified to learn that she will be working under Henrietta Bird whose standard approach was to be rather cross about everything and in particular to the readers, most of whom were a sad disappointment to her.

There’s nothing that can’t be sorted out with common sense and a strong will, is Mrs Bird’s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ motto. Mrs Bird hands Emmy a list of ‘Topics That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs Bird … not exclusive and will be added to when required’. Emmy realises that she has to sort out and trash all incoming letters with subjects that, according to Bird, contain even a trace of unpleasantness, meaning anything remotely connected to sex. Unwanted pregnancies; affairs; problems in the bedroom — all are strictly off limits. Mrs Bird is offended by even the sight of such letters: if Emmy accidentally passes one over, she has to face the wrath of Mrs Bird.

Now, this is where the plot thickens. Do-gooder Emmy sympathises with the readers and decides to write back to them as Mrs Bird, offering them private advice. Later, she goes a step forward by publishing the Unpleasant letters in the magazine. However, not everything remains hunky dory as we find later. 

A sub plot of the book revolves around the love lives of Emmy and Bunty and how they cope with jilted love, friendship, betrayal and finding romance.

The novel provides us with stories of courage during wartime with Hitler bombing the city and people forced to go into night shelters. Yet people still went to parties, danced and planned on getting married. Young people everywhere are usually optimistic and are ready to face everything that life throws at them.

Author A J Pearce packs in the charm of writing letters, old school though they might seem now, she seems to convey that writing a letter can act like a balm for the sorest of hearts.

Written in characteristic British humour that lightens up even the most unfortunate, miserable moments, this debut book by the author is a recommended read. 

It has been published by PanMacmillan.

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