The Safest Place in London
by Maggie Joel
Allen & Unwin, 2016
Review by Rachel Johnson
On a blustery evening in January 1944, two mothers seek shelter from an air raid in the east of London.
The women are polar opposites in everything from appearance to personality to class: Nancy Levin is a young mum from an impoverished background, struggling to keep herself and her daughter afloat in the East End while her husband returns to sea with the British Navy; Diana Meadows is posh but not wealthy, living a comparatively comfortable life in upper middle class Birmingham, her own husband fighting in a tank regiment in Africa. But the lives of these two women and their young daughters are inexplicably linked, and the bombing on this dreadful night changes their world in ways they can’t possibly imagine.
The Safest Place in London, the fourth novel from British-born Australian author Maggie Joel, paints a startlingly vivid picture of wartime London. It’s a compelling story about people doing desperate things in dire situations, with half of the novel detailing the two young mothers’ experience in the air raid shelter and the other half following their husbands in the aftermath. Joel examines the ideals of family and love under the most extraordinary of circumstances, as well as exploring the profound grief that goes hand in hand with war.
The book is a little slow starting, with much of the first act being spent building the characters’ background and motivations in preparation for its conflict, but picks up the pace at the ninety page mark. The ending, too, falls a little flat; it feels as though, after building such a compelling conflict, Joel wasn’t quite sure how to resolve it.
Nonetheless, the narrative is incredibly moving and Joel does a great job of making the reader care about her characters despite their shortcomings. Her writing is rich and atmospheric, capturing the very essence of World War II era England. If you’re interested in war stories set outside the realms of the battlefield, this will be a most enjoyable read.