Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Features Writer
1:00 AM 5th March 2024

What A Tangled Web: Wartime For The Chocolate Girls By Annie Murray

I am a self-professed chocolate and cream queen. Chocolate in all its forms never disappoints but for me, king of the crop has always been Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, with Fruit and Nut as its Consort. That Edward Cadbury’s aim, as articulated in 1953, was to make the Cadbury village of Bourneville ‘a happy place’, comes as no surprise. And it is fitting that Annie Murray’s latest instalment of the Chocolate Girls series should emerge coterminous with the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the chocolate manufacturer.

It was a different place during the years of World War Two, however, and it seems that novels such as Wartime for the Chocolate Girls remind us that whatever the setting, be it London with its seat of government, or Sunderland with its shipyards, or ‘the great war machine Birmingham had become’ with its car and aviation industries, and Cadbury’s which ‘had gone over to war work’, or indeed anywhere else which Mr Hitler chose to target, nowhere was safe; each had its own story to tell. Most of all, though, how frequently do these narratives remind us that human nature is what it is and, even in time of war, it is actually love which makes the world go around? This novel concentrates on those left at home: mainly the women playing their part in the factories enduring the hardship of rationing and separation; even the Bevin Boys get a mention. Heroes are not always in uniform and not always stereotypically heroic.

The wartime setting for this novel is, for the greater part, almost irrelevant, a secondary backdrop, since it is far more about people. Families: secrets and lies, truth and penance. War or no war, emotions are ragged and families will have their dramas and their crises but when people are separated because of international conflict, the weight of it all seems so much heavier. Truly, ‘love hurts’ and certainly, ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’.

Families: secrets and lies, truth and penance. War or no war, emotions are ragged and families will have their dramas and their crises but when people are separated because of international conflict...
‘Oh what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive’, wrote Sir Walter Scott and there was never a truer word as far as Ann and Len Gilby are concerned. Their family keeps them together. It is something they prize above all else but despite appearances, theirs is not the perfect family and truth will out. The characters, some nicer than others, develop slowly: the matriarch is Ann who feels as if she shoulders everyone’s problems along with her own guilt. She is married to Len who has secrets of his own, but she loves Tom. Daughter, Joy, is waiting for Alan to come home but after years of no news, she meets the American, Hank, from Philly, who brings her alive once more. Dependable Sheila is quick to make her views known and Martin, the youngest, harbours his secret, too. Cyril and Margaret provide something of a safety net as the family reels from one drama to the next. Marianne and Audrey need help and turn to the Gilby family to provide it. Hilda, Norma and Jeannette are friends but... Meanwhile, the children play on, oblivious. Each of the women is different and it was good to see the characters blossom in the hardest of times and pull together.

War adds a different dimension and who knows how any of us who have not lived through such an event would behave? Separated from loved ones, not knowing where they are or if they are alive or dead, coping with hardships, making do. Certainly, attitudes changed to some extent, as people were quicker to seize the moment and judgement was not always as harsh even if decisions taken, were not always for the best, as people sought happiness and comfort where they could, living ‘in the moment’.

Murray touches on homosexuality but given the period and the law at the time, she makes little of it. She also touches on rape and shockingly, the lack of interest shown by the police when a woman is attacked. She touches on the vulnerability of women but also on the strength of those same women who realise they can rise to the occasion when necessary. ‘Operation Diapers’ gets a mention, when women were shipped to America to be with husbands and fiancés whom they had met while they were stationed in Blighty. The treatment of prisoners by the Japanese in their notorious camps is recalled, just enough to offer a glimpse of the reality facing families when loved ones were eventually returned to them, in need of care and compassion.

This is the fourth book in the Chocolate Girls series although it works as a standalone and is an easy read. Interest is maintained because there are so many plot lines woven together, but family members often have their own story and it is how the family deals with each, that keeps us engrossed throughout.

Wartime for the Chocolate Girls is published by Pan