Book Review: The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dr Diana Carroll, steps back in time in this delightfully nostalgic tale of life and love.

There really is nothing nicer on a cold winter’s day than curling up with a good book, especially one as cosy and comforting as The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club.

Set in England in the summer of 1919, the novel explores the aftermath of World War 1. Society has changed, people have changed, but the old values quickly reassert themselves. Women who were allowed to drive trucks and work the land during the War now have to give up those positions for returned servicemen. And many of the menfolk have come home battered and broken, physically and emotionally.

At its heart, this is the story of Miss Constance Haverhill, companion to Mrs Fog, staying in the quaint town of Hazelbourne-on-Sea. Constance is neither rich nor poor, not suitable for domestic service but certainly not a young woman of independent means. She hopes to marry for love, not money, but is all too aware that money matters.

Life with Mrs Fog in the small seaside hotel is very much like stepping into a period-piece Fawlty Towers with the unfortunately Germanic waiter Klaus as a worthy substitute for Manuel from Barcelona. Constance is feeling a little lost and dejected when along comes Poppy Wirrall and her band of motorcycle-riding friends. These women would be considered outrageous but Poppy happens to be a baronet’s daughter, so they have the means and independence to follow their dreams. Poppy’s brother Harris, an airman badly injured in the War, makes a deep connection with the lonely Constance but all seems lost when he gets engaged, seemingly inadvertently, to one of Poppy’s well-to-do chums.

There’s a lot to love about this novel and Helen Simonson has a wonderful eye for detail. It’s very much akin to her previous novels Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before The War. Although she now lives in New York, Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. There is a familiarity to her descriptions of the English coast and surrounding countryside that give the book a real authenticity. And her writing is lovely, with a delightfully vivid turn of phrase. As Klaus hurries down the street ‘his shoes, the soles nailed so many times, struck loudly against the pavement.’ And on a windy morning on the promenade ‘a woman in a billowing white coat, a white hat clutched in one hand and a leashed pair of long-haired white hounds in the other, blew by like a clipper ship under full sail’. Then there’s the ‘older gentleman dressed in a dapper navy linen jacket over cream linen pants and a yellow silk cravat with an embroidered pattern of honeybees.’ Just delightful stuff! I could read this all day long just for the writing regardless of the actual storyline.

Helen Simonson has crafted a lovely portrait of life in a changing world where cold reality often collides with individual dreams and established expectations. Highly recommended.

Published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99


We would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the lands and waters of the Adelaide region.

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