BOOK REVIEW: When My Ship Comes In by Sue Wilsher

I’m not a huge reader of historical fiction, however I do have a fondness for wartime fiction, and stories set in the 1950s, which has seen me gain quite a collection and to seek out books from new authors. It’s especially interesting to delve into the lives of women; women who worked, women who raised families, women who would strive to keep themselves and their families together during times of much poverty and sorrow.

When My Ship Comes In is the debut novel from Sue Wilsher. It had been on my to-read pile for some time, mainly because I was waiting for a weekend to devote to it. Once I had finished it, I wish I’d read it much sooner, because it’s such a brilliant book.

It’s 1959, and Flo Blundell is scarcely managing to make ends meet. Living in a cramped tenement flat near Tilbury Docks with her short-tempered husband Fred, young son Mikey and twin teenage daughters Babs and Jeanie, Flo earns money cleaning the upmarket cruise liners, as she struggles to keep the family fed and clean. After all, her mother always told her about the importance of keeping a family together. Yet Flo holds a secret dream of taking the children and escaping on one of the huge liners, to travel to Australia and begin a new life away from Fred’s violent hand.

But her dream is shattered when Fred’s drinking, and his short fuse, result in him losing his job at the Tilbury docks – and with it the flat in the Dwellings. However, the family is saved from inevitable poverty when Fred manages to land a job at the nearby leather factory, Monday’s.

Working at Monday’s seems like a dream in itself – the workers are trained well with opportunities for promotion and college, there are dinners and dances and social clubs, and the family find themselves in a new house full of modern gadgets that Flo had never imagined she’d own. There’s also the Young Wives Club, run by boss’s wife Maggie, who seems to take a liking to Flo.

Things are looking up for the Blundells – that is, providing that Fred puts an end to his drunken, violent ways. Any more trouble and the family will be out for good…

Meanwhile, Babs and Jeanie are adhering differently to their new lives at Monday’s. Babs is in awe at the attention from boys, and her talent at sewing. Jeanie on the other hand is quiet and studious, and jumps at the chance to get an education. Living in the shadow of her confident sister has never really bothered Jeanie that much, until a boy comes into her life and changes everything…

This is a wonderful novel about women with dreams, held back by those around them and society’s ideals. The book opens with a powerful scene, and immediately we get an insight into Flo’s situation. The reality of her coping, living day to day in a tiny bedsit with a family to take care of. She hadn’t intended to get pregnant so early, but it’s what life dealt her and she has worked hard. And when the opportunity arises for Flo to be a career woman and better herself, it seems the world is against her. A situation which a lot of women faced in the 1950s. Flo is a strong woman, willing to go against the odds to keep her family safe and cared for. Even when certain obstacles threaten to hold her back.

When My Ship Comes In is so hard to put down. It’s an emotional, gripping journey, a fantastic debut, and I loved every page. I’m looking forward to more from Sue Wilsher in the future.

Rating: 5/5

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