Sisters on Bread Street

Written by Frances Brody
Review by Jan Middleton

Frances Brody takes great care to present a range of telling issues surrounding life in northern England during the Great War, including urban poverty, attitudes to foreign nationals, social injustice and women’s struggle for independence and recognition. It all adds up to an absorbing and emotionally engaging read, with a cast of credible characters and a strong storyline. Definitely a page-turner!

Motherless yet spirited, 15-year-old Julia Wood, daughter of a German-Jewish butcher, finds herself confronted with endless problems as her father’s ability to provide for his family dwindles to nothing in the face of suspicion and hostility. Her courage and inventive entrepreneurism are admirable; she thinks nothing of making meat pies by the hundred to sell in the local ammunitions factories. Meanwhile, Julia’s sister, Margaret, sets her cap at a young journalist as her own route out of privation. What follows is a fast-paced narrative presenting the sisters’ quests for survival and betterment; the war brings tragedy and opportunity in equal measure. The diary device allows Julia’s voice to come through strongly. Her thoughts and feelings spark with outrage, compassion, feistiness and loyalty in a refreshingly self-deprecatory manner.

Brody’s skill lies in creating an authentic period setting. The harsh, yet fascinating, world of the early 1900s is beautifully evoked in fine detail – that world of horses and carts, tin baths, steam trains and gaslight preserved in family albums of sepia photographs. It’s a reminder of how far we have come in terms of social progress, and yet there’s an uneasy recognition of the contemporary relevance of some of the issues. Don’t be put off by the rather whimsical, “public library” style cover; it’s actually a really thoughtful novel.