How far would you go to get away from a narcissistic mother?
If you're 20-year-old Betty Braithwaite, you'd rather face the London Blitz than go back home. But then Betty's mother heads straight for the bombs to fetch her back.
Mrs. Braithwaithe is the bombastic, crashing, presumptuous and therefore unlikeliest of spies at the center of Jennifer Ryan's new novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. The story opens with Mrs. Braithwaite alone on a train. She's the village busybody who's gotten her comeuppance: Betty has left her, so has her husband. She's been sacked as head of the village ladies' volunteer war committee; ostensibly because she was caught spying (clumsily) on a fellow committee member she'd accused of stealing a pig. The deeper reason? "The truth is, we're fed up with you bossing everyone around," one of the ladies says.
Unmoored and friendless, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to seek out her daughter in London. She hasn't forgiven Betty for leaving, and wants her home. But beneath Mrs. Braithwaithe's bluster is the desire to know that someone out there loves her. That's the beauty of Ryan's work: She treats angry, scraping characters such as Mrs. Braithwaite — and Edwina Paltry, the unscrupulous midwife in Ryan's first book, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir — with the care their own deep wounds desperately need.
Both novels pit fractious characters against kinder (and more curious) souls to see what emerges. The Chilbury Ladies' Choir explored village life during World War II. The men have gone to war and so far only bodies have come home, so the women of the village have a choice: Continue in their old Victorian status-seeking ways, or come together and support each other.
The Spies of Shilling Lane is narrower in scope. It's largely Mrs. Braithwaite's story — what set her on her cold-hearted, overbearing path, and what helps her change course. As she sits in that train carriage, doubts start to seep in about the life she's led. Her daughter has barely spoken to her since she left home, a repayment for a lifetime of her mother's criticism — why did Betty have to be so bookish; why did she prefer plain clothes; why did she leave her mother? — or just being ignored.
When Mrs. Braithwaite finally arrives on Betty's doorstep in Shilling Lane, she intends to berate her again, only her daughter isn't there. Betty hasn't been seen in several days, and no one in the boarding house seems to care. At this point, Mrs. Braithwaite's bluster turns into true courage. That same presumptuousness that enabled her to boss everyone around in the village is exactly the trait needed to find her missing daughter.
Mrs. Braithwaite drags along Betty's mousy landlord Mr. Norris for a sidekick. He's her exact opposite, a man who wants to erase all trace of himself. Mrs. Braithwaite, however, gives him no choice in the matter and together, they break into houses, a butcher shop and infiltrate a Nazi spy ring — anything and everything to find Betty.
It's through this search — and the horror of the nightly Nazi bombings — that Mrs. Braithwaite comes to recognize the mistakes she's made and the false values of the Victorian class system she grew up with. She realizes the wonder that is her daughter, and hopes it's not too late to reconnect.
This is a crisp and energetic book, a suspense story that explores our darker sides without drowning us. Ryan's use of language is grippy and plosive. There's just the right amount of tutting, snapping, clasping, grasping, sneering and snarling that, along with a tight plot, keep a reader gladly bouncing along. What truly stands out is the underlying tone of joy in Ryan's writing; there's warmth and care even in the darkest moments.
Ryan has delivered a suspense story with high stakes, but nothing drops to sinister or degrading. It's a refreshing and rare quality when you've had enough of nonstop grim headlines, or other suspense novels that mine depravity to seize readers' attention. Rather, Shilling Lane gives us characters we all long to believe in; it tells us there is redemption and forgiveness in the world, that people do learn from their mistakes and make amends. That mothers will stop at nothing, and that is why we both hate them and love them.