"As the nights draw in, there will be plenty of readers seeking total immersion and escapism in saga-length novels, especially those with the promise of further volumes to come."
As the nights draw in, there will be plenty of readers seeking total immersion and escapism in saga-length novels, especially those with the promise of further volumes to come. I can heartily recommend Elsie Mason’s The Biscuit Factory Girls.
The cosy cover image is essential to the genre and it’s true that for the first part of the book, the comforting scent of baking biscuits permeates the air which the employees of Wight’s Biscuit Factory in the north-east live and breathe. The latest recruit is newlywed Irene Farley, who joins her sisters-in-law Beryl and Megan working to make the biscuits that will offer a little comfort to the men on the front line of the Second World War which rages all around them.
But the story gets a lot darker, and fast. (This is an incredibly pacey novel.) Irene – a former land girl from Norfolk – has known handsome airman Tom Farley for just three months before she leaves her parents and sisters to join him, his three brothers, sisters-in-law. This memorable family has been led by the indomitable Ma Ada since the early death of her good-for-nothing husband.
Throughout the novel, Irene is forced to question the wisdom of her actions. First the prospect that she doesn’t belong amongst the Farleys, their extended family and neighbours, all living cheek by jowl in the Sixteen Streets – ‘where everyone’s watching each other’s comings and goings and there’s gossip about everyone’ – near the shipyards of Tyneside. Second, the mounting fear that her presence is somehow jinxing the safety and happiness of the Farley clan.
Of course, for Irene there also looms the threat of losing her new husband in the war, a threat which compounds the anxiety of her unexpected pregnancy.
As the weeks pass, with work and the occasional treat punctuating the constant threat of the nightly bombing raids, Irene settles into life and forms important, unconventional friendships – with beautiful Bella, daughter of the Italian ice-cream parlour owner and Arthur, rule-abiding usher by day and someone utterly different by night. But most demanding of all is her relationship with her sister-in-law, Megan, who resents Irene from the start. As the story develops, she unravels the stories of Megan and her husband Bob and can understand better why their marriage has become so corrosive. A great pleasure of the book is unfurling such stories within the story.
There are moments of scandal, of elation, of tension, of triumph. There’s even a thread of vivid queer glamour bursting through the leaden winter and the rubble which adds a welcome vein of colour. There’s a great deal of love, too, waiting to ripen and as we race to the end we eagerly wonder what lies in store for these characters in Elsie Mason’s next book.