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The Safest Place in London

The setting of wartime London is the backdrop for this most unusual story. The descriptions are so clear and unadorned, that you feel what it is like to be sheltering in the underground. Bombs are raining down very close by, you don’t know if you will have a house when you eventually leave the shelter, and when part of the roof collapses, you don’t know if you will leave the shelter alive. Add to this your children who have been there for most of the night, and are tired and hungry and cramped, and life is pretty desperate.

 Amid this fear and chaos, the author describes the lives of four of the characters. The people she has chosen to focus on are two of the mothers, down in the underground and their absent husbands. They could not be more different, and as their back stories are told, we understand why.

 Nancy is an Eastender, and has had an incredibly tough life. Her mother died at an early age and Nancy was allowed to stay and grow up in the boarding house where she lived. She met and married Joe who joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, and he has just finished his leave, returning to his ship. He also is from the East End, and has had a tough life. They both are determined to give their daughter Emily a better life. Due to the depression before the war, most people have been unable to get work, and save.

 Diana has brought her daughter, Abigail, to London to see a Pantomime. The truth is that she came to buy some black market food and is aware of the risk she has taken. She is from a family where money is not in such a desperate shortage. Diana sits next to Nancy but the two women don’t speak. Diana’s husband Gerald has been sent to the Middle East with a tank unit, and surprisingly has just been granted leave. Diana and Gerald have had a good marriage, although Diana suffered several miscarriages and then, as she aged, failed to fall pregnant. Eventually she conceived, but she and Gerald were too scared to acknowledge her condition until it was certain that the baby would survive. Abigail is their much loved and adored child and the center of Diana’s world.

 As the wives and daughters wait all night in the underground, the husbands are facing huge dilemmas. The stunning ending to the all-night vigil in the tunnel, leaves us confronted by an enormous moral problem. This will change everyone’s life hugely, and leaves one feeling personally engaged and wondering how we would react.

 One of the elements of a good book is to revisit the issues and ponder the alternative outcomes. Apart from learning a great deal of detail about conditions in London during the war, we learn how human behaviour can change dramatically in desperate circumstances.

AuthorMaggie Joel
PublisherAllen & Unwin
DistributorAllen & Unwin
ReleasedSeptember 2016