‘She lapped in spirals beneath the sheen, feeling the tug of water rush against all of her. When she next surfaced, she couldn’t remember what it was to be on land. Seeing her clothing on the bank as things belonging to another…’ It all began beside the mill pond. Honest, fair and eager to please, fifteen-year-old May has a secret, and not of her own making. She wears it like an invisible badge, sewn to her skin, as though Ma stitched it there herself. It rubs only when she thinks of Sophie, Pa or the other name that’s hidden there; that no one knows about. Caught in an inevitable net of change, May joins the Wrens, leaving her Cotswolds home for war-torn London and the Blitz. As a dispatch rider, she navigates the city by day and night, surviving love and loss throughout a blackout of remembered streets and wrong turns. Night after night, the bombs drop and, like those around her, she takes cover in the shadows when they do. But May is waiting for a greater shadow to lift, one which will see the past explode into the present. A tale of one girl’s search for love and belonging, The May Queen is a debut novel that goes to the heart of what family means and finding your place in it.
The May Queen by Helen Irene Young Review
Romance, Mystery and Secret Rendezvous are detailed in this beautiful coming-of age Story.
How do dark family secrets shape and mould the individuals we ultimately become? What are the consequences of these secrets, and how do they impact our everyday lives?
The May Queen by Helen Irene Young is a beautiful coming-of-age story that encapsulates the essence of a teenage girl growing up in the era of World War II. The book starts in the summer of 1934 where we are introduced to the young heroine, May Thomas, and her family.
The story documents the trials and tribulations of May’s life from 1934 to 1945. It is segregated into 3 parts as May negotiates the challenges of life, lies and deceit, love and war. May transforms from a quite reserved adolescent into a courageous and brave young woman.
The structure of the book itself often leaves the reader feeling a little confused at first, but I believe that is the point. During the first half of the novel I struggled at times to understand the storyline. I was forced to slow down my normal reading pace and re-read parts of the book to try and work out what had happened, and how the interactions of the characters had come about. It is a cleverly structured book, not one you would generally read on the beach while trying to keep an eye on the kids playing in the sand. This book demands your attention, your full attention.
Although I have to admit I found myself frustrated at first, once I began reading the second part of the book, many of my unanswered questions slowly began to disappear. There can be something very satisfying about reading a book like this.
About the book
May and her family live in a small country town where it seems the community all know one another and consequently know everyone else’s business. May’s teenage sister ,Sophie, brings disgrace upon the family by falling pregnant outside of wedlock. She leaves the small town before people can find out about the pregnancy. One can only assume this is to avoid the shame and embarrassment it would bring upon her family and perhaps the unidentified father of the child.
May’s mother is the matriarch of the family and she ensures everything within the family home runs according to schedule. She comes across as rather harsh and quite abrupt. I expect this is quite stereotypical of women in that era however, as they were often left to fend for their families whilst male members were sent off to war. Her father works for the family who own the local manor. He seems to be a kind and loving father who works hard to provide for his family.
The interactions between May and her family and those of the family from the manor are not limited to the father’s job. On the cusp of becoming a women, May develops a relationship with Christopher, the son of the family who live in the manor. Small snippets of their secret and often unplanned rendezvous are revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book.
May is confused by her parents’ attitude towards the family from the manor and she begins to suspect that Christopher may in fact be the father of Sophie’s baby. Despite this suspicion and the presence of a girlfriend in Christopher’s life, May continues to find herself drawn to him whenever the opportunity arises.
As the year’s pass and May matures into adulthood, she enlists as a Wren where she is sent to a war ravaged London to fulfill her duties. During her time in the Wren’s, May is exposed to the dangerous elements of war when she faces night after night of deadly bombings during the Blitz. May develops friendships and love interests during her time in London as she negotiates the fast-paced life of war, work and late evenings on the town.
The third part of the book returns to focus on May’s relationship with her sister, Sophie. It is during the final section of the book that many unanswered questions are laid to rest. It was almost like the story had come full circle and we were back to where it had started. May had grown from an innocent teenager into a capable young woman. The family secrets May had held all these years along with her life experiences had helped to shape the young woman she had become.
Finally, Christopher the young boy from the manor also returns towards the end of the book and a battle for May’s heart begins. Just who will win her heart? You will have to read it for yourself to find out.
Due to it’s structure, The May Queen is a book that, as I said, forced me to read at a slower pace. It left me considering the pace of many books that are on the market today. The fast-paced style of psychological thrillers dominates, but what has happened to the books that truly make us concentrate? There is no instant gratification in this book like many I could mention, but in a world where so much is instant these days, doesn’t feel like a breath of fresh air to be able to savour the slow considered words of a complicated novel? There may be no ‘instant’ gratification in The May Queen but you will be pleasantly rewarded once you have turned the final page.
The writing style of Helen Irene Young was quite interesting. I often felt like she deliberately went out of her way to make me process the storyline in my own individual way; almost like an artist only drawing half of a picture and forcing us to imagine what the other half may look like. It’s a risky technique but something so different that it intrigued me, and she totally pulled it off. I have recently come to enjoy being left to draw some of my own conclusions. A novel concept in this somewhat instant lifestyle we tend to lead.
My advice to readers would be to ensure you have right atmosphere and ambiance to be able to fully process and enjoy this book. I suggest you wait to read the book until you have time to sit back and relax in peace and quiet with a steaming hot cup of tea (or sneaky glass or two of vino as I did).
The May Queen is Published by Crooked Cat Books
To read more reviews from Casey, you can check out her author page here: Casey Ravindran.