It’s vacation week in Blackpool for Ruth Singleton and her family in 1959. Consumerism is on the rise, while the British textile industry is in its death throes; seaside resort towns like Blackpool will be devastated when the end comes. Ruth’s husband Jack starts his holiday with several secrets: he’s been offered jobs by both his union and the mill where he works. (“Jack is a fervent believer in cotton.”) And he’s received a surprising letter from Crete, where he spent time early in World War II.
Teenage daughter Helen feels thwarted by her restrictive mother at every turn, while seven-year-old Beth, who is recovering from a long illness, is babied, swaddled in heavy clothing and still made to take naps by Ruth. Believing the child is not long for this world, Ruth frustrates Beth’s attempts to complete the various tasks in her I-Spy at the Seaside magazine. Every chapter begins with one of the magazine’s challenges, which grow subtly more sinister in tone as the plot progresses.
All of Sallie Day’s characters ring true. Though he has his flaws, Jack is an honorable man. Helen’s efforts to shake free of her mother’s control are thoroughly convincing, and Beth, who has horrifying memories of the hospital and her surgery and who can “see the disgust in her mother’s eyes and feel the revulsion in her touch” over her scars, is heartbreaking and valiant. There are well-drawn secondary characters too. But it is Ruth who dominates the story. She is a demon cleaner who believes Jack will be faithful because she’s a good housewife. The world is beginning to change—feminism is in its early stages—and Ruth is determined to fight for her corner. “Ruth doesn’t see herself as an individual. How could she be when she’s bringing up two daughters? If she’s doing it properly there isn’t time to be an individual—when she’s not the children’s mum, she’s Jack’s wife. What decent mother has time to be an individual?” There’s something admirable about Ruth, although nothing very likeable. The Palace of Strange Girls is a striking first novel.