The May Queen by Helen Irene Young
It all began beside the mill pond. Honest, fair and eager to please, fifteen-year-old May has a secret, and not of her own making. She wears it like an invisible badge, sewn to her skin, as though Ma stitched it there herself. It rubs only when she thinks of Sophie, Pa or the other name that’s hidden there; that no one knows about.
Caught in an inevitable net of change, May joins the Wrens, leaving her Cotswolds home for war-torn London and the Blitz. As a dispatch rider, she navigates
the city by day and night, surviving love and loss throughout a blackout of remembered streets and wrong turns.
Night after night, the bombs drop and, like those around her, she takes cover in the shadows when they do. But May is waiting for a greater shadow to lift, one which will see the past explode into the present.
A tale of one girl’s search for love and belonging, The May Queen is a debut novel that goes to the heart of what family means and finding your place in it.
The May Queen is the story of 15-year-old May Thomas. As she navigates world war 2, relationships and her life. In the opening of Part one the novel begins in July 1934, with a teenage May. May has a mother who is very reminiscent of the era, in that she is a matriarch type figure, rather brash, harsh and abusive. This is an era when ‘young girls must stay out of trouble’ and trouble comes to visit May’s family. The early chapters show the development of May’s childhood. The writing is subtle and slower paced as it sets the mood for the message of the novel.
Part two, welcomes the month of May 1940 and a now older and more mature May has swapped the small bubble of her existence in the Cotswolds for war torn London during the Blitz. We read on as she discovers new relationships with work colleagues and soldiers alike. For May will surely, come to know love and loss in equal measure.
Part three opens in June 1945, I found this part to be very reflective of the relationship between May and her sister Sophie. Two very different young women, forced together in trying times. The novel is based around family relationships and how they contribute to the adults we ultimately become. I found this novel to be very much a ‘coming of age’ story. Literary in its content in some parts and I can see a definite YA appeal. My daughter is 14 years old and I could see her being able to relate to May’s journey of self-discovery. 4*
Q) For the readers can you give us a summary of your novel The May Queen and your background?
A) The May Queen is a tale of family love and loss. It’s about learning to see yourself as something more than an appendage of this unit. It’s about what happens to you when you do that. And about what happens if you don’t. I’m a digital editor by trade and always having to think forwards. It’s such an escape to focus firmly in the past when I write.
Q) I found The May Queen to be very much a coming of age story, surrounding May Thomas. Was this intentional or did it develop whilst writing her story?
A) It was always a coming-of-age story because in order for May to develop she had to grow. That’s the usual way of it. Although, some people start off fully grown and then regress, but that’s a different story altogether! What did develop during the writing process was just how much conflict existed in the everyday – in the domestic. I hadn’t quite appreciated that. So, between May and Ma, May and Sophie, May and Pa. Conflict, conflict, conflict. I was only surprised she didn’t leave them earlier.
Q) The novel is very different to many of this genre, currently on sale. As it focuses solely around May’s relationships with others and the impact they have on her. What is the inspiration behind May?
A) Thank you! That was my intention. I love narratives which focus around character development and growth – a journey of self as opposed to a physical one. I didn’t see the point of writing another WW2 novel that ticked off historic events as fact (although of course in The May Queen the research is there, it’s just background). What’s the point of telling people what they already know? No, for me it was about May. She was something new. She floated to the surface of the mill pond (beside her home) and refused to sink. She’s inspired by my mother and grandmother (who grew up in the mill at Fairford). They were strong and fearless women with the ability to light up a room. I wanted to honour that.
Q) I am a huge WW2 geek. I love the absolutely love the era in movies, fiction and non-fiction. What drew you to the era?
A) I was initially drawn to the 1930s. I wanted to explore that hazy time in the countryside – of town carnivals (Fairford’s was one of the biggest in the South West) and community that centred on patronage from the local gentry. In Fairford, all of that changed after WW2. The carnival never returned and the big house was torn down (sometime in the 1950s). I wanted the reader to slip into that earlier time and emerge with a full understanding of what had been lost.
Q) I have many WW2 heroes, some ordinary people, who achieved amazing things for their country during the word. Such as Alan Turing and Viola Szabo. Who are your WW2 heroes?
A) The women of the WRNS. It was a wonderful time for them. I don’t care to name the well-heeled few who came from money and made it into history. It’s the poor girls, like my grandmother, who took the initiative; who drove motorbikes and pulled great warships out to deep water, proudly standing on the decks of their little tugs in bellbottoms. Those girls are my heroes. I bet they got up to all sorts.
Q) What’s next for your writing career? Do you intend to write anything else in the WW2 genre or historical fiction?
A) I have flipped to a completely different continent but stayed true to genre. My next book is set post-WW2 in the late 1940s in Colombia. It’s about an architect, Luke Vosey, who is broken and seeking a new life for himself in a new place. He’s trying to run from his past but what he doesn’t realise is that he’s running towards something much worse. Colombia in the 1940s was also reeling from a European war they hadn’t participated in. Even there it reached. The novel is set at a time before everything in Colombia, politically and socially, was about to get more savage. I don’t want to spoil it and so won’t say more than that!
*Huge thank you to Helen for agreeing to be part of a Q&A on my blog.