First of all, thank you to Jasmine Marsh at Hodder and Stoughton for allowing us to be part of this blog tour and to Kate Thompson for writing such a wonderful and interesting book.
What do we need in the face of darkness…? Colour! Well, the characters portrayed in Kate Thompson’s latest wartime novel ‘Secrets of the Homefront Girls’ are as colorful as the array of lipstick shades they help produce.
How amazing is it that Kate has managed to come up with a totally unique way of showing a different side to World War II by setting her novel largely at the Yardley factory in the East End of London where ‘Beauty as duty’ became an official propaganda campaign, backed by Winston Churchill.
Who knew lipstick could play such a huge part in keeping the country’s morale up during such a horrendous time in history?
Lily Gunn has returned to her home in the East End after six years away and it soon becomes apparent, she is hiding something. Does anyone know the real reason she left?
Renee Gunn, Lily’s younger sister, the pin-up girl of the Yardley factory, is fun, feisty with a hypnotic effect on the people she meets. A fleeting error of judgement gives her a secret of her very own. How long can she keep it from the people she loves?
Esther, a fifteen-year-old Jew from Vienna has arrived to work at the factory after fleeing Austria with her mother when her father, a lab assistant, was arrested and taken to a work camp. Can she find a way to fit in and will she ever be reunited with her dad again?
The lives of these women and many others in the Shoot are largely held together by the formidable Nell Gunn, Lily and Renee’s mother. Known locally as ‘Auntie’ she is always involved in some kind of neighborhood dispute or at the heart of someone else’s domestic situation.
‘You’re the only woman who’s said no to my wife and lived to tell the tale.’
The type of person you would want to keep onside, she is tough, capable and respected in the community, though has an inner kindness and strength we could all learn by and can often be found making a cup of tea for a homeless man named Snowball believed to have lived on the streets since World War I.
Nell loves her youngest, seven-year-old Frankie, who it soon becomes clear is different from the other Bricky kids. Kate Thompson explores what must have been incredibly difficult for the family and child in those times in such an interesting and clever way you can’t help but route for little Frankie to get the chance he deserves.
A stand out theme throughout this book, for me, is freedom of choice or the lack of it in those times.
“I want another life. A life where women have options beyond the factory, the bedroom and the kitchen’.
While the men are fighting on the front line, many of the women left behind are battling their own issues, be it during ‘Flying plate night’ when Mr and Mrs Trunk are fighting at number 8, Mrs Barnett giving birth to her ninth child or Mrs Povey dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, everyone has their own struggle. Women have limited or no options in lots of aspects of their lives and this book explores many of the reasons they are forced to keep secrets for their own survival. Some of which are as wobbly as the cobbles they run over during the black out.
So how did a company like Yardley help boost morale?
This was really interesting as you would think putting on lipstick would be the last thing on your mind, but the ‘Beauty as Duty’ campaign aimed to encourage women to keep up their appearances and not to feel guilty about self-indulgence.
They even came up with ‘Burnt sugar’ a shade of lipstick especially created to go with the colour khaki.
Yardley’s cherry red lipstick wasn’t just coloured oil, fat and wax in a tube. It was escapism; a beautifully packaged dream. The gold art deco tube smothered in tiny stars held more than mere lipstick. It contained the promise of a better life.
This book, despite being set in a traumatic time in history, was thoroughly enjoyable, full of emotion with many heart tugging stories all intertwined. The characters are written with such depth you feel you are sitting along side them on the Yardley production line.
Probably some of the most important words are delivered by a character called Walter (Whiffy) Smith, a factory worker unable to fight in the war because of his eyesight. Words that meant so much back then and words that should be in the forefront of our minds in this day and age. Whether you are related by blood, friendship or are colleagues from work, family is what you make it and in hard times especially, we should all stick together and treat people with kindness and compassion.
‘All that matters is love.’
There is a heartwarming section at the back of the book where Kate tells of her research meeting some of the real Yardley girls, two of which are Ann and Eileen, now 86 and 90. Even after all these years you get the feeling there is a great camaraderie between these ladies and always will be.
My own grandparents were married a week before my granddad went to fight in World War II. He was lucky enough to return safely but many of the stories depicted in this book do not end that way. (So be warned, you may need tissues) My nan, who passed over more than ten years ago would never leave the house without a slick of bright pink lipstick and as she would have been 19 in 1939, I wish she was around today for me to ask if this habit was a result of any of the Yardley campaigns.
A thoroughly recommended riveting read. Up the Yardley girls!
This was one of those books where you are sad to reach the last page so it’s great to hear some of the adventures will continue in ‘Secrets of the Lavender Girls’ out in 2020. Can’t wait!
About the Author
Kate Thompson is a Sunday Times bestselling author, journalist and ghostwriter. She has penned a multitude of fiction and several non-fiction titles including Secrets of the Sewing Bee, Secrets of the Singer Girls, The Wedding Girls and The Stepney Doorstep Society.