Lily’s War by Shirley Mann: A compelling and entertaining debut novel, the perfect uplifting read for long winter nights - book review -
A young woman from Manchester who leaves behind her family and all she has ever known to become a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs)
When Shirley Mann set out to write an inspirational wartime tale of love, loss, hope and courage, her aim was to ‘rediscover’ her parents as young people.
Born in the 1950s, the Derbyshire-based journalist and film-maker was too busy ‘inventing the teenager’ to take much interest in what the ‘oldies’ had actually done for us but, using her late mother and father’s wartime service and romance as her starting point, she aimed to fill the gap and recreate ‘ordinary everyday life in extraordinary times.’
The result is her moving and heartwarming debut saga, Lily’s War, which stars a young woman from Manchester who leaves behind her family and all she has ever known to become a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs), and discovers that the country’s biggest challenge could be her greatest chance to excel.
In Manchester in 1942, the Second World War is raging across Europe and beyond, and 19-year-old Lily Mullins is determined to do her bit for the war effort. Her friends and sweetheart Danny Jackson have all joined up and Lily is sure there must be a role for her that goes further than knitting socks for the troops and working in the office at Liners, a cargo and passenger shipping company.
All the security of her carefree childhood has been obliterated by the conflict and although she has seen the grief and tears of losing loved ones, she decides to sign up for service with the WAAFs because she is no longer frightened of what it might mean.
As far as she is concerned, ‘the war was waiting to be won by a young woman from the north of England.’
And as Aircraftwoman Mullins, Lily finds opportunities open up that she could never before have envisaged and that she has a talent as a wireless operator. Helped all the way by a special gang of WAAF friends, Lily finds strengths she didn’t know she had and realises that the safety of the country might just be in her hands.
Meanwhile, handsome Danny, an Army tank transporter driver experiencing the heat, hazards and intense fighting of the North African campaign, feels ‘like a pawn in a big game of chess that someone else was controlling.’
But he is still determined to marry Lily and thinks longingly of the lovely, laughing girl with deep golden hair. As his letters home become more and more infrequent, and Lily declares she has no intention of ‘pining away,’ will the long separation mean the end of their love story?
Using snippets gleaned from her mother, who was a wireless operator with Bomber Command, and her father, who served with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy, plus in-depth interviews with some remarkable former WAAFs, Mann sweeps us away to the danger, uncertainty and hardships of the war years.
Along the way, we encounter the everyday realities and challenges of living and working on the Home Front, witness the perils facing WAAFs serving in the nation’s hotspots, and observe the highs and lows of a wartime romance.
With drama, intrigue, friendship and a cast of vibrant characters all playing supporting roles, this is a compelling and entertaining debut novel, and the perfect uplifting read for long winter nights.
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)