Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart
Published By White Fox Publishing
Available from all good Bookshops and online
What They Say.
It is not all wonder and delight.
Serious, violet-eyed 19-year-old Lydia is scared of love and passion, handicapped by the secrets and trauma of her childhood on the Solway Firth. But she is ready for real life to begin.
In a world before the pill, her defences are tested when she falls in love with a sports car mechanic, part of a smart, shady circle. Weaving her uncertain way through the glittering opportunities and pitfalls of a changing society, the old-fashioned values of her doting grandmother and her serious civil service job, it is when Lydia inherits a brasserie in run-down Notting Hill that her journey really begins.
But can she find her way through love and loss, family secrets and the first stirrings of feminism?
What I Say.
I saw a picture of Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart from White Fox Publishing, and read that it was all about a young woman in London in the Sixties trying to find her own identity in a world that was in a great state of change. I have to tell you that I was absolutely drawn to it straight away – not to mention the fabulous cover!
Fortunately, the lovely people at White Fox Publishing very kindly agreed to send me a copy, and I am so very glad that they did.
Lydia is a young girl who has had to deal with an absent father and a disconnected and hostile mother in the Solway Firth. When her mother is unable to cope with Lydia, but seemingly cannot stop looking for relationships with a number of unsuitable men, her Grandmother Eveline steps in and takes over. Lydia is sent to spend her childhood with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Edmund. When she is accepted to University, Lydia is suspended after she bites another student for taunting her about her mother.
Eveline decides that the only thing to be done is for her to take charge of Lydia’s wellbeing, and is determined that she should follow what is expected of her and find a nice young man to marry and settle down with.
The only thing is that no one has actually asked Lydia what she wants. A sympathetic University tutor secures an interview for Lydia at the Department of Education, and she decides that working there temporarily has to be better than simply settling for a life limited by the social aspirations of her family.
What is so refreshing about Kirsteen’s writing is not only do you absolutely feel you are seeing and feeling the whole world around you due to the evocative descriptions of the Sixties, but that Lydia’s frustration at being shaped into a role she doesn’t want is always right at the heart of the narrative.
Lydia meets her former University friend Fred, as he is released from prison for theft. Standing right next to her are Dave and Marcus – two of Fred’s friends. They are part of the London social scene that has eluded Lydia for so long, and along with their friend Auriol, she suddenly realises how much the world has to offer beyond the confines of her Grandmother’s world. Marcus and Lydia start a relationship, and his job as a sports car mechanic to the rich and famous means that Lydia gets the chance to travel with him and finally experience life.
At the same time, Eveline has met a young playwright called Arthur Shawcross outside a theatre, and slowly they embark on an unexpected and mutually beneficial friendship. Arthur finds a mother figure who can give him the reassurance and guidance he needs, while Eveline starts to confide in Arthur about the complicated and challenging secrets of her family. As they grow closer, little by little, Eveline starts to understand the way in which the world around her is changing and understands it is not as foreboding as she believed. She also asks Arthur to write a play about her family, and gives him access to all her family documents and correspondence, with Lydia as an integral part to the plot.
When Eveline passes away, her family is shocked to hear that Lydia is left a brasserie in Notting Hill. No one knew that it was part of the family property portfolio and are even more confused as to why she has left it to Lydia. This is a huge decision for Lydia. Although she and Marcus are in love, he has moved home to look after his late father’s farm and wants her there with him.
The thing is, now Lydia finally has the chance to shape her own future and find her own identity free from the constraints of her family.
Break These Chains is a clever and engaging story of a time that doesn’t seem so long ago, but was a very different world for young women. Their identity and self worth is inextricably linked with how much they conform to what is expected of them, and for those, like Lydia who choose to make their own decisions, are regarded with disdain and treated with suspicion.
There is also the idea of women belonging to men and being reliant on them too throughout the novel. Marcus loves Lydia, but he lays down the rules for their relationship, he buys the clothes for the way he wants her to dress, and he becomes resentful when she doesn’t spend enough time with him at the farm – although we learn why later on in the novel. Lydia’s boss at the Department of Education believes she has the potential and intelligence to progress in her career – with a caveat that if she is ‘nice’ to him, he can put in a word for her. This is the underlying notion of Break These Chains – it might be a man’s world, but can Lydia find the self belief and determination to do what she wants as oppose to what society expects.
Break These Chains was a revelation for me, in terms of the fact that not only did the perfect descriptions make me love London even more, but really brought home not only how far we have come in terms of women’s rights, but also how much further we have to go. You cannot help but like and admire Lydia and Eveline, both who may be separated by their generations and outlook, but are in reality far more alike than they could imagine. It is a love letter to both the Sixties and to the women who were determined to ensure future generations are finally able to be in charge of their own destinies.
Thank you very much to White Fox Publishing and Kirsteen Stewart for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.