Don't sailors have all the luck: not only do all the nice girls in Joan Bakewell's debut novel love them, but the nasty girls and their teachers do too. It's hardly surprising the morale of our merchant mariners was unbroken in the battle against the German U-boat blockade. It is 1942 and the battle in the Atlantic still hangs in the balance. The feisty, attractive headmistress of Ashworth Grammar School, Cynthia Maitland, decides her girls should do their bit by adopting a merchant ship from the nearby port of Liverpool.
The officers are invited to the school, a reciprocal visit is arranged to the ship, romantic bonds are forged between sixth formers and the crew. But it is the serious-minded Miss Maitland whose life is turned irrevocably upside down when – determined to snatch her last chance of happiness - she embarks on a passionate affair with the ship's captain, Josh Percival: a married man.
Rather haphazardly interspersed with this story of love and loss in the Forties is a feebler parallel one set in 2003 on the eve of the war in Iraq. The 60-year-old Millie has been left a box of memorabilia by her mother. In it she finds school magazines with accounts of Ashworth's ship-adoption scheme. She decides to investigate, a welcome distraction from the decision preying on her mind. Is she prepared to donate one of kidneys to save her daughter?
The bones of the plot are drawn from Bakewell's wartime experience as a grammar-school girl in the North-West. As one might expect of a broadcaster of her stature, every fact has been meticulously researched. There is a real flavour of the times in her depiction of the smoky dance halls and pubs of Liverpool, crowded with sailors in search of an easy lay; the seedy hotels where the captain and his lady can rent a room, no questions asked. Bakewell is at her best when drawing on memories of a girls' grammar; the smutty giggling in assembly, the jealous conversations about boys, the smell of sweat and "rampant hormones" in the gym.
Unfortunately, too much research makes its way onto the page. Every stitch of every dirndl skirt is described in nostalgic detail, until the story begins to resemble the props list for Foyle's War. All the Nice Girls stutters along at the pace of a vintage Morris Eight. There is a strange listlessness to Bakewell's prose even when she tackles the U-boat attack on a convoy. The adulterous relationship between captain and headmistress begins intriguingly enough but fails to burn with any sort of emotional intensity. This is an amiable enough read but falls at least a ship's length short of capturing the poignancy of separation experienced by the seamen who fought in the Atlantic, and their sweethearts at home.
Andrew Williams's novel 'The Interrogator' is published by John MurrayReuse content