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This is a review of the 2009 book 'The Palace of the Strange Girls' by Sallie Day. This book was a readitswapit swap and I was drawn to it because it was about a family who holiday in Blackpool during the 1950s. As Blackpool was a childhood hoiday for me during the 80s I was keen to see how it compared.
A bit on the storyline
The book follows the Singleton family on their week long annual holiday during the factory shutdown week. The Lancashire family are Jack the dad, Ruth the mum and daughters Helen (15) and Beth (7). On the outside, they appear to be a normal family but the book reveals a host of secrets are being harboured.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt from Beth's holiday reading; a i-spy book with challenges to complete at the seaside. Beth is on a mission to collect the points she needs to join the i-spy official club. She refuses to cheat but greatfully accepts help from sister Helen who is great at the game.
The characters in the book are colourful and entertaining. Dad Jack is dark and troubled, mum Ruth is old fashioned and spoils everyone's fun, but only because she loves them all, Helen is desperate for some freedom and Beth is recovering from heart surgery and was my favourite character.
You might be wondering about the strange title of this book, I know I was. It refers to the old fashioned 'freak show' attractions often found at the seaside. In the book, Beth wants to go to the strange girls show but her mum won't let her (and it is adult only) but Beth is drawn to the tiger woman whom she fortunately gets to meet in the back strrts of Blackpool. They bond over their matching scars - Beth's are due to her heart surgery - and the woman boosts Beth's confidence which has been failing of late.
I loved this book and would recommend. All the characters are compelling, each has their own problems they are troubled by. I felt drawn to Beth and loved her innocence amongst all the seedy goings on in Blackpool.
Whilst it's not the Blackpool I know, it is portrayed as a place people go to have fun in 1950s England. A well researched and written book that will make you smile and maybe even laugh too. Four out of five stars from me. This book is currently back on readitswapit if you fancy a swap.
PS. I was telling my mum about this book and she can remember as a girl in 50s Blackpool visiting an attraction which was a little woman who lived in a miniature house. You paid to walk round her garden and peer in her windows to watch her cleaning and making tea ... now that's strange!!
The Singleton family live a traditional life in post war Britain. Father Jack works in the mills while Ruth stays at home and looks after their two children. On the surface they seem like a perfect family but scratch this surface and you find that things are not as perfect as they look and their annual trip to Blackpool only highlights the problems they face.
Jack is a foreman in a cotton mill during a time when the mills are closing down, he receives a letter out of the blue that shakes him up and makes him realise that he married for all the wrong reasons. Ruth has been under pressure caring for seven year old Beth after a heart operation and longs for Jack to make more money so that she can move to a bigger home to fill with all the latest kitchen gadgets. Helen is 15 and struggling to cope with the strict rules that her mother makes her live by and longs to leave school and get a job so that she can indulge in the latest fashions and have more freedom like her friends. Young Beth views the world around her with the kind of wonder that only a child has and spends her days filling out her eye-spy activity book.
The Palace of Strange Girls is set in Blackpool at a time of change, Blackpool was always the traditional holiday destination for the working classes but now foreign holidays to sunny Spain were beginning to be within the reach of the average family. The changes in society during the late 50's and 60's were explored, the heavy industries were starting to become mechanised with a huge social cost and society was starting to become more liberal and materialistic. The book also takes a look back to the years of WW2 which still had a huge influence on how Brits lived their lives.
The book has extremely strong characters. I felt warmth for the whole family and could see their differing points of view. Even Ruth who at first appears to be cold and controlling is shown to have a warm side and you can understand why she has a need for order and control in her life. The family meet other holidaymakers, old friends from home and Blackpool residents on their holiday and these people have a big impact on them.
The Palace of Strange Girls is Sallie Day's first novel and it is clear that she draws on her own life experiences as well as extensive research of the era to bring the book to life. I loved the fact that she painted such a vivid portrait of Blackpool with all its hustle and bustle as well as talking about life for an average working class family living in the north of England however the book does steer into being a bit over sentimental at times about this way of life and the story is tied up a bit too neatly for my liking.
In the author notes at the back of the book Day hints that there may be a sequel to this book out at some time ion the future and I would love to see how the family progressed over the next decade as this first novel was warm and witty and well written.
Every year the Singleton family holiday at the Belvedere Hotel in Blackpool. It is such an ingrained routine that dad Jack pays the deposit for the following year before the holiday is out.
So in July 1959, Jack, a Blackburn mill worker, his wife Ruth and their two daughters, 16 year old Helen and 7 year old Beth, take the train to the seaside for their annual Wakes Week holiday.
"The Palace of Strange Girls" tells the story of that one week's holiday and how each family member finds themselves in a transitional period of their lives for several reasons.
Jack has a secret he has kept from Ruth since before they married during the war. This secret is weighing heavily on his mind following receipt of a letter and through a few flashbacks we learn about Jack's wartime experiences and how he came to marry Ruth.
Ruth is a cold fish. Restraint is probably her biggest characteristic - she is the sort of person who can kill a conversation stone dead with one word and a look - but she rarely loses control of herself. Her life after marriage has been devoted to keeping the terraced house Jack owns outright spotless and taking care of her family. She is frugal, frigid and no fun whatsoever. She wants to move to a new semi in a better part of town but is finding it hard to convince Jack.
Elder daughter Helen wants to leave school and work full-time at Blanche's dress shop in her hometown, but her mother won't hear of it. She spends the week desperately trying to escape her mother's clutches and restrictive rules, desperately wanting to enjoy her holiday the way she wants to.
Beth is an observant and clever child who struggles with reading and writing after missing a lot of school because she had surgery for a hole in her heart. Her mother wraps her up in cotton wool, not allowing her to play with her friends and ensuring she wears fleece vests even in the middle of July. Beth is far closer to her father, who adores her and calls her Sputnik.
Sallie Day paints an evocative picture of Blackpool in 1959, and the timing of this novel is clever as Day is able to reference the transitional point Britain found itself in at that time - the wealthy were beginning to consider Spain as a holiday destination, immigrants were beginning to find jobs in the Lancashire mills and cheaper imports of cotton were starting to come into the country.
The claustrophobia of holidaying so close to home at the same time as everyone else is also well described here. Jack and Ruth are constantly bumping into people they know from Blackburn, the crowds on the beach are painted vividly and even the lack of space in the hotel rooms and staff quarters are well described.
Day has clearly researched the weaving industry at the time too, however I found some of the descriptions clunky and clearly gleaned from reference manuals and old tomes during her research.
The premise of this book is upcoming change, and she documents it well. The relationship between Ruth, who is prudish and single minded and her elder daughter Helen clearly shows a huge generation gap as Helen is denied almost any small pleasure such as a new skirt, a trip to the pier or a visit to the pub with her friend by her mother. When she does finally manage to escape her mother's clutches for a brief afternoon on the pier, one is cheering for her and willing her to have a good time.
Day also really captures the character of Beth beautifully. She really gets into the mind of a 7 year old girl trying to escape from the confines of her illness, the mental scars she has from her surgery and the confines of the liberty bodice her mother forces upon her. Beth takes an I Spy book to Blackpool with her and Day uses excerpts from this book to preface every chapter, which is a lovely touch.
Ruth is probably the downfall of this book however. She is singularly an unsympathetic character and one is left wondering how she ever managed to keep someone like Jack, who is repeatedly referred to as handsome, clever and charming. She also struck me as incredibly selfish - only caring about her own achievements in the home and how she might come across to others. However I cared more about the rest of the family and especially wanted to learn what would happen to her daughters, who were sympathetic and well formed characters.
Overall Day is a very good writer and her descriptive passages in particular are detailed and never dull making the story a real page turner and a recommended read.
Available on Amazon from £3.84 with 352 pages.