Lead Review (The Midnight News)
- Book: The Midnight News
- Location: London
- Author: Jo Baker
The Midnight News is both a gripping mystery and a gentle love story set in London in the 1940s. Twenty-year-old Charlotte Richmond is a witty, determined and mischievous character, who has decided to remove herself from her privileged but stifling family circumstances and strike out on her own in London. She finds a room to rent with the motherly Mrs Callaghan, and a typing job in the Ministry of Information. It is dull, routine work and she’s not very good at it, but she sticks at it because she needs the money in order to be self-sufficient.
Suddenly Charlotte’s world is rocked when she loses her dear friend Elena at the start of the Blitz. This comes on top of the devastation she felt on the death of her brother, Eddie, who was killed in action in the earlier part of the war. As air raids and bomb shelters become part of everyday existence, she witnesses the reality of many other wartime deaths and injuries, together with the destruction of certain neighbourhoods, while other areas seem unaffected. Though everyone around her seems grimly accepting of the situation, Charlotte can’t help thinking that it’s not a coincidence that several of her loved ones have died, apparently not as a direct result of enemy action. When she begins to see a shadow man following her, she suspects that there is a killer loose in London and that somehow their deaths are linked to her. But is she imagining it?
Charlotte can’t discuss her fears with anyone. She is increasingly isolated from her friends, and she doesn’t know who she can trust among her new acquaintances. The searing pain of losing those close to her brings about self-destructive urges in Charlotte and she makes oblique references to a previous mental health crisis that occurred when she “made a nuisance of herself”. She is in a fragile emotional state, and fears for her own sanity. She can’t turn to her family, who were the instigators, we learn, of her previous incarceration, for fear of bringing down their wrath once again.
By chance she finds herself sharing her thoughts with Tom, the boy who feeds birds in the park. Perhaps she feels he is the one person she can tell, simply because he is so far removed from her everyday world. Tom feels that the simplest explanation is likely to be the best one, and that her friends have died of natural causes, but he agrees to find out what he can to help Charlotte, thus inextricably linking their future fortunes. Tom’s own family are – like Charlotte’s – oppressive but in his case they stifle him through love and care for his wellbeing. Throughout the book there’s a glimmer of hope that such positive forces will win out, and Charlotte can be restored.
The Midnight News is cleverly plotted, and Jo Baker uses language beautifully to create moments of real tension in the novel, such as the noir description of Charlotte being pursued through the blacked-out streets of the city. It is heart-rending to read Charlotte’s intense emotions, knowing that we, as readers. are the only ones sharing them. There are cleverly deployed hints at past events, which are revisited and explained at critical points later on. The book recalls Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear, which also explores the narrow divide between sanity and madness in the context of the Blitz. Charlotte’s sense of disorientation, both physical and metaphorical, is real and there’s a lovely irony in the way that she acknowledges that it is only the voices of her friends in her head that keep her sane. I loved the characters and found the book gripping and enjoyable: highly recommend.