Author: Sallie Day
Sallie Day’s talent shimmers throughout “The Palace of Strange Girls.” Blackpool, England, 1959. The resort town embraces the Singleton
family, Jack, Ruth, 16 year-old Helen and 7 year-old Beth, holiday visitors. Beth recovers slowly from heart surgery and amuses herself
with her I-Spy at the Seaside workbook. Helen rebels against her strict, and overprotective mother by making friends with a loose waitress at the Belvedere Hotel, 15-year-old Connie. Jack carries a small foreign-stamped envelope that cocoons his wartime past – and his possible future. Ruth, stunted by fear and guilt, yearns for an expensive home and a better lifestyle, while remaining distant and remote from Jack and the girls.
Sallie Day has taken post-war 1959 into the realm of remarkable. Full of compassion and caring, Ms. Day thrusts us into the lives, hopes, dreams and despair of this flawed and all too human English family. Unremitting, she encrypts her reader with the small and large losses and secrets that scatter a family to the wind, while maintaining empathy for each character.
It seems like war hero Jack has lost the most. His beloved Eleni was killed in Crete as he shipped home. He marries Ruth for safety, not love. As foreman at the Foster Cotton Mills, he knows that it is just a matter of time until the mill closes. Jack is the heart of the family, and he accepts the job as Mill Manager to keep Ruth and his girls. Ruth discovers he has had a one-night affair – with Connie, Helen’s 15-year-old seductive friend. And yet Jack is a good man doing his best.
Seventeen years after leaving Crete, a letter arrives from Eleni. Eleni stands next to her 17-year-old son Iodan, Jack’s son. Eleni, his only love, is not dead. And Jack yearns for his unknown son and loves him as much as he does his daughters. He hides the letter from the family.
Ruth makes it clear that she has no interest in Jack sexually – she never has – but he stays to protect her and the girls, while pondering a future with Eleni.
Ruth, insensitive, cold and calculated, experiences the greatest loss – her emotions. But Ruth also loves her children. She shows it in the only way she knows, by overprotecting them, and keeping the house immaculate, all tangible ways she can prove herself the good mother and wife she knows she is not. She thinks she can control her unhappy marriage, and her world. She does the best she can, although her bitterness pushes Jack and the children away.
Helen, beautiful and naïve, is nearly raped under the pier. Seven-year-old Beth saves her by attacking the boy, Alan, who finally releases her sister. When Helen and Beth arrive home, Ruth ignores the girls’ pain, while Jack sees the anguish in her daughter’s face.
Beth, though physically scarred from the extensive heart surgery proves the most vital and whole person in the family. She accepts her mother’s limits until she finally rebels through a wild encounter with the dog Gunner and the caring Tiger Woman from the Palace of Strange Girls, a carnie act on the pier. She finally sees herself as whole, not disfigured, and remains the rock that the family pivots around.
Full of breathtaking in-depth prose and careful observation and love for her characters, this book is masterful and complex.
A must read for the end of summer – as well as into fall and winter.
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A” – Ava
“Palace of Strange Girls” can be purchased at Amazon.com for under $11.
Thank you to the Hachette Book Group for providing our review copy as well as copies to give away.
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