Top critical review
One person found this helpful
A writer better suited to fiction
on 16 December 2013
I haven't read any of this author's work before but was attracted to the title because I'm so interested in history. However, despite clearly advertising itself as non-fiction, I felt that the whole thing read as a twee novel, with slightly unbelievable characters and situations. It doesn't surprise me that its predecessor has been turned into TV series, as some of the anecdotes lend themselves so perfectly to cosy Sunday night viewing.
I really expected to find more exploration into the workhouse part of the book - as it was, the first section focussed on three people who had grown up in workhouses, but the reader was left with little understanding of the realities of their lives. One of the characters, Jane, seemed more like a caricature; I was scratching my head with bewilderment during the part where she is taken to the hairdressers and shopping for a new wardrobe. I think this part of the tale was intended to be funny and heart-warming (perfect fodder for cosy Sunday night viewing on TV) but it just grated. A further criticism of this section is that she tells the stories of the three characters without us ever really 'meeting' them. To all intents and purposes, this piece comes across as fiction; did those people honestly give the author that much detail about their lives? It seems very unlikely, given the content and circumstances.
I got about a third of the way through the utterly pointless second part, which centred on a very odd nun called Sister Monica Joan. The author seemed blindly in awe of the woman but she came across as many of the other characters saw her: manipulative and rude. After a lengthy dialogue over a Monopoly game, during which a particularly plummy-mouthed character speaks in a manner that makes Enid Blyton's boarding school girls sound like troglodytes, I skipped to the final part of the book. Sister Monica Joan's self-inflicted dilemmas held no interest for me and the whole sorry debacle had nothing whatsoever to do with the shadows of the workhouse!
The final section, in which we meet an old Army veteran, was probably the most interesting part of the book. Thanks to the author's self proclaimed ignorance ('I didn't know much about the First World War... I must confess I didn't even know what trenches were!' - in her early twenties? Really??) she is able to encourage the old man to talk about his days as a soldier, and those of his children. Because she is relaying it as a first hand account, it feels much more real and honest, and the subsequent descriptions on the issues of rehousing the tenement occupants also sound authentic (at least compared to the first section).
I don't want to slate the book because Worth can write well, but I do feel that her experiences would have been better channelled into works of fiction rather than this slightly disjointed work. At times, I wondered where on earth she was going with her stories and the 'shadows' of the workhouse never really loomed large enough to justify the title. Perhaps, as someone who is not a fan of cosy, Sunday night TV viewing, this explains why the book was not for me, especially given the glowing 5 star reviews here. However, I will not be reading another Jennifer Worth book.