Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts by Mary Gibson

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Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts is Mary Gibson’s debut book and for me it was such an enjoyable read. We follow Nellie Clark in the lead up to the war in 1914 and afterwards. Nellie lives in the Bermondsey area of London where life is hard, everything is hand to mouth and working in factories is a way of life. 

Nellie is great – she is kind, hardworking, brave and individual. She is a reflection of what it was like to live in a poor family in Bermondsey in 1911 and her family continue to illustrate this too. I did think Nellie’s father was a stereotypical father that we always see in books based in this period – cold, harsh in punishment and controlling but over time he changes and we do see his love and joy for his family. Men can bottle things up and he just needed one event to release all his emotions so he could live life again. Then a shock comes and he dies in a tragic accident. I was so sad for him and his family as it was unbelievable bad luck just when they were being a proper family again. Nellie was strong though and we really got to see how hard life could be especially when she was taking on matchbox making and calculating out where money went per week down to the last penny. But she made sure the family didn’t go to the workhouse.

The Custard Tarts are a group of woman who work in the local custard factory. Even though life was hard they still had a laugh and supported each other. I really enjoyed the detail Mary had put into this story to get across how hard the work was and what long days they did. I could imagine the yellow powdered atmosphere of the factory and feel the aches and pains the girls had at the end of the day. Also unlike us they had to go home and be a housewife etc. so their days were hard. What this story showed was that despite this the women were determined and hardworking. The women’s strike of 1911 for better pay and benefits also illustrated how women were treated and it makes us think how lucky we are today. Equality is still a struggle in some countries but for us in the UK we are lucky to have good pay, equality legislation in place and actually good benefits. The Custard Tarts took a risk as they could have lost their jobs and incomes but I was happy that the strike paid off in the end as it definitely did change their lives a bit.

Ted and Eliza are interesting characters in that they are always in the background but have an influence over the story. Ted takes socialism to a whole other level and he illustrates how it can be dangerous for someone to take their strong political beliefs too far. This is still true in today’s society and is slightly chilling. Eliza is an activist but is embarrassed of her poor background. She is the mistress of a rich man also. Throughout the story I did have to ask how can that be any better and if she is lobbying for equality and better working conditions she should be drawing on her poor background and using it to her advantage. Instead I saw her as someone who meant well but very confused about who she was.

War breaks out in 1914 and we can feel the tense, emotional and fearful atmosphere among the community. The women who were handing out white feathers to men not signed up are referred to and I still believe this was a disgraceful act. War was a time for communities to become even stronger and support their men. But men needed time to decide if they were going to sign up but should not have been forced into it by a while feather. Usually this aspect is in the background in stories but I am glad Nellie stood up to these women about what they were doing. I have to add that praise must be given to the women in the novel and in real life who were working in the munitions factories – more pay but very dangerous work. The war effort truly was a joint affair between men and women and made the equal rights even more apparent.

It was interesting following the factory girls lives from home as the war continued and then when the war was over and people came home. Sam was Nellie’s sweetheart and he came home to Nellie after the war a changed man. How anyone could think these men could come home the same I don’t know but I felt so sorry for him and Nellie and their family. War definitely changed him and in today’s terms he had post-traumatic stress disorder. We so want a happy ending to this book as there have been so many high and low moments and I am glad we get it.

Mary has drawn on stories from her family in real life and also historical fact to create an amazing story full of endearment, emotion, determination and bravery. It is a rollercoaster of high and low moments but that does reflect life at that time. Knowing that the hardship and community feeling was a reality for many in the period it was set in makes this story so much more touching. Mary’s writing style is easy to read and she creates atmosphere and scenes that make us think we are there with Nellie and the other characters.

Overall I loved this book and I can’t express how much it was a brilliant read. I am definitely looking forward to Mary’s next book. I would recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction and being taken away to a different era of history.

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