As the 8.10 to Charing Cross pulled out of Woolwich, Sylvia Bradley could hardly contain her excitement. At fifteen and a half, she had only just left school, and was thrilled to be joining the crowds of glamorous women who took the train ‘Up West’ every morning to work in the capital’s grand hotels and shops.
It was fitting that I read GI Brides, the second book from the authors of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Sugar Girls, thousands of miles away from home in Perth, Australia. There, however, the similarities between the G.I. Brides and me end. For not only was I reading the book surrounded by my family, I also will be returning to my own country soon. In contrast, the G.I. Brides sacrificed not only perhaps never seeing England again, but also even seeing their own family again once they set sail (or flew, if they were lucky) for America.
For those of you who have read The Sugar Girls, the format of G.I. Brides will be reassuringly familiar. Barrett and Calvi have chosen four brides to tell their stories – Gwen, Rae, Margaret and Sylvia – and each chapter is devoted to one of the women. This interwoven approach keeps the reader interested, for no sooner have you become involved in one of the bride’s latest predicaments, their chapter ends and your focus to redirected to one of the other brides.
What I found fascinating, and shocking about G.I. Brides, was the extent to which the women emigrating for love were reviled by some Americans. Even their new families were not altogether welcoming. Although obviously, wartime, despite involving many nations uniting for a common cause, is a time in which every country involved fights to protect itself. Hence those who were jealous of the G.I. Brides were mostly women, angry that those from another country had taken their men. It is a concept difficult to appreciate from a modern viewpoint, given that we have not experienced warfare on such a scale since WWII.
There are harrowing stories in G.I. Brides, but there is much to giggle at too. Some of the funniest episodes in the book result from the differences between British English and American English. My favourite was when Gwen/Lyn kept asking the train porter to ‘knock her up’ each morning, on her great odyssey across America to California, so that she could glimpse the changing scenery. The porter told her to make sure she told her boyfriend that he ‘knocked her up’ every morning. Little did innocent Lyn know that the expression took on quite a different meaning in America!
I enjoyed G.I. Brides immensely and look forward to what the authors investigate next.
If you have enjoyed this review, you may find this Guardian interview with Nuala Calvi interesting.
Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.