Title: The Safest Place in London
Author: Maggie Joel
Published: September 1st 2016
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Historical, War
Rating: 4 stars
On a frozen January evening in 1944, Nancy Levin, and her three-year-old daughter, Emily, flee their impoverished East London home as an air raid siren sounds. Not far away, 39- year-old Diana Meadows and her own child, three-year-old Abigail, are lost in the black-out as the air raid begins. Finding their way in the jostling crowd to the mouth of the shelter they hurry to the safety of the underground tube station. Mrs Meadows, who has so far sat out the war in the safety of London’s outer suburbs, is terrified – as much by the prospect of sheltering in an Eastend tube station as of experiencing a bombing raid first hand.
Far away Diana’s husband, Gerald Meadows finds himself in a tank regiment in North Africa while Nancy’s husband, Joe Levin has narrowly survived a torpedo in the Atlantic and is about to re-join his ship. Both men have their own wars to fight but take comfort in the knowledge that their wives and children, at least, remain safe.
But in wartime, ordinary people can find themselves taking extreme action – risking everything to secure their own and their family’s survival, even at the expense of others.
War, class divides and moral dilemmas are the focus of accomplished Australian author Maggie Joel’s fourth novel, The Safest Place in London. Joel takes her reader into the very heart of London during the air raids, zoning in on the experience of those taking shelter in the underground areas of London’s east end. Joel’s compelling novel brings together two couples experiences of war and draws them together. She shows us how one fateful night spent in a bomb shelter has the ability to change these characters lives in an instant.
The Safest Place in London is a story divided into two parts. The first part is set in the underground, describing events that take place in an east end London underground air raid shelter. The second part is focussed on the overground experience, as those who survive a vicious air raid attack, deal with the aftermath and the choices they make. The first part of the novel concentrates on two contrasting families. The Levin family are from a struggling area of the east end. When the sirens sound one cold January evening, Nancy and her daughter Emily are forced to abandon their home and find shelter in a nearby underground station. At the same time, Diana Meadows and her daughter Abigail hail from a very different area, the country outskirts of London. This mother and daughter are making their way into the capital to watch a pantomime. Their journey is disrupted by the air raid sirens and they are forced to find safety in the nearest shelter they can find, which happens to be in the unfamiliar east end of London tube station. The bombing takes its toll on the occupants of the tube station that night and not all survive. As rash, as well self serving decisions are made in the aftermath of this air raid, the two men of this tale are fighting for their own survival – in the back of their minds they want to believe their wives and children are relatively safe. Or are they?
The times of the Blitz in London is a era that has always fascinated me, so any literature based around this period always grabs my attention. Joel works hard at building a thorough sketch of London at this perilous time. As soon as the characters entered the underground tube shelter, I felt like I was transported to sights, sounds, smells and feelings of the time. Joel’s descriptions are evocative, as well as authentic, alluding to the depth of research she must have taken to write these scenes.
What stood out about The Safest Place in London was the way in which Joel has chosen to offer her reader a contrast in characters. Joel’s central protagonists are polar opposites class wise and this enables the reader to receive different perspectives of the Blitz experience. I also appreciated how Joel provided contrasting war experiences of the soldiers featured in the story. While one husband is serving in North Africa, the other husband is based on a submarine. No matter what the story or experience, the tension was high.
At the heart of this story is the human face of war. Joel explores the feelings experienced by those living the war at this time. The uncertainty, the desperation and the will to survive all emerge as common sentiments. The plot twist Joel delivers just past the halfway mark in the novel, places the characters, along with the reader, in a moral quandary.
The Safest Place is London offers the reader a heart wrenching and profound study of the human experience of war during the Blitz. It is a refined piece of writing and will appeal to those who appreciate a well woven historical fiction novel.
The Safest Place in London by Maggie Joel was published in September 2016 by Allen & Unwin, details on how to purchase the book can be found here.