The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen is a gently profound novel which explores secrets, love and family ties against the backdrop of a Gloucestershire village and London during the Blitz. It isn’t your typical Second World War romance novel, though; it’s a more literary novel showing the coming-of-age of its narrator, May Thomas. If you’re not expecting the dramatic twists and turns and heightened emotions that often feature in Second World War romances, and prepare yourself for a more gently-paced, reflective novel which ultimately delivers more value, I think you’ll find this one to savour.

Although The May Queen opens immediately to a scene of conflict and tension – May’s sister Sophie has brought shame on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock – the world Young introduces us to seems idyllic and innocent. May’s life in the country village of Fairford revolves around trips to the Big House to visit her father who’s the gardener, making her costume for the village fair, and cycling around on her bicycle delivering goods from the village shop. As her name suggests, May feels an affinity with nature – she’s awarded the accolade of The May Queen at the fair – and her love of being in the water recurs as a motif throughout the novel.

After Sophie disappears to have her daughter, Honor, May becomes attracted to the son of the occupants of the Big House, Christopher, despite the class difference between them. When May’s parents catch on to her closeness with Christopher, they fear she is going the same way as her sister; this leads May to have suspicions about who Honor’s father might be – but she still can’t quite bring herself to avoid the charming Christopher. The first half of the novel is slow, but there are quiet secrets bubbling under the surface, a sense that something isn’t quite right. Before these secrets can rise to the surface, though, we’re thrown into the midst of another conflict: the Second World War breaks out and May moves to London to become a Wren.

The contrast between the two halves of the novel is effective. While the first half is quiet, gentle and picturesque, the London section is noisy, frantic and dangerous. May trades in her bicycle for a motorcycle, roaring around the streets of London to deliver dispatches with bombs falling around her. I didn’t know much about the Wrens so enjoyed learning more about how women served during the war (which was very inspiring). As the bombs fall May loses people close to her, but Young recreates the Blitz spirit: May picks herself up and gets on with life, revealing a quiet inner strength. She attracts the attention of a sailor, John, but never feels able to fully commit to the relationship – John’s character seems distant, but it feels like an intentional projection of May’s feelings towards him – and the memory of her relationship with Christopher never leaves her. May eventually returns to Fairford and Sophie’s secret resurfaces at the end of the novel, which has an ambiguous ending with a note of hope I appreciated. Real life doesn’t have neat resolutions, after all.

In its exploration of a misunderstanding which disrupts an outwardly idyllic world and reverberates through the years that follow, The May Queen reminded me a little of McEwan’s Atonement, especially with its gently reflective literary tone. I loved Young’s voice, which captures May’s dialect not just in her dialogue but in the way she thinks and observes the world around her. Young also uses some particularly beautiful and unusual turns of phrase which I had to re-read. I enjoyed the fact the novel takes a different approach to the war, using it as a backdrop for May’s emotional journey rather than the focal point. This is an elegant debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author!

The May Queen is published by Crooked Cat Books – support the indies! More information here: http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/product/the-may-queen/ 

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