Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow is a nostalgic novel set in 1950 which succeeded in evoking lots of different emotional responses as I was reading it. It’s in turn, funny, sad and heart warming but also has a serious dose of tension thrown into the mix.
Barrow has created this novel as the second in her Shadows’ trilogy. As with all series, you can’t beat reading them in the order that they were intended; however, this is a story that works perfectly well as a standalone. Five years have passed since Pattern of Shadows and Barrow does a great job of providing her readers with just enough back story.
Mary and Peter, the seemingly star-crossed lovers, have been reunited and are living in idyllic surroundings in a coastal village in Wales. Sadly though, tragedy never seems to be far away from this couple and, just as it feels like they may get their happy ever after, Mary is pulled into a family drama that threatens to rip her relationship with Peter apart.
One of Barrow’s many strengths is the amount of historic research she has done and the attention to detail which brings her story alive. As someone who was brought up in a Northern industrial city as part of a working class community, lots of Barrow’s descriptions brought a smile to my face as memories of my grandparents’ back to back houses, complete with outside toilets and front rooms that were rarely used, came flooding back. It is a credit to Barrow’s writing that her settings are not only realistic but become a central part of the story. At times, it reminded me of the setting for a drama and I could well envisage the whole thing being played out on our TV screens.
I like so many things about this novel but not least the dynamics of the Howarth family. As the oldest girl, Mary has been conditioned to put other people’s needs before her own and she does this time and time again at the expense of her own happiness. Her younger sister Ellen is almost childlike due to her reliance on Mary to take control every time life becomes difficult. No matter that everyone around them can see that their relationship isn’t healthy, they seem destined to carry on playing their predetermined roles.
Barrow gives us a warts and all glimpse of life in a close knit community. The back to back housing means that there is no space for privacy or individuality and that can be oppressive and limiting. However, it also has its positives, for example when a child goes missing everyone in the community immediately pulls together as part of the search. Likewise, it’s easy to idealise the idea of strong women and a matriarchal society but Barrow reminds us that women can be just as bullying and aggressive as men. Ellen’s mother in law is the epitome of a spiteful, angry woman dominating her family’s life in such a way that she is making everyone unhappy.
Strangely my favourite character is Mary’s brother, Patrick, who on the surface is an unpleasant bully. He has been brought up in a home where domestic abuse is the norm. His only male role model was a man who expressed his anger and frustrations by lashing out. Patrick has seen his mother’s suffering as a victim of domestic abuse and has vowed to himself he will never be like his father. However, he struggles with his own anger and does in fact strike his wife. He’s also a womaniser who measures his self-worth by his attractiveness to women. There is no doubt though that at heart he is a good man and Barrow allows us to see his journey to become a better husband, father and human being. By the end of the novel, I was really rooting for him to rise above his upbringing.
Barrow also explores racial prejudice in the novel through the difficulties that Peter endures. It’s hardly surprising that, during the years following the war, communities who had suffered devastating losses refused to welcome a German into their midst. However, the story expresses hope for humanity as gradually tensions ease and it becomes clear that Peter is no different to anyone else. Parts of the story felt very relevant to modern day Britain where we are becoming increasingly wary of outsiders. There is poignancy in the way Peter insists that his children have English names because he doesn’t want them to be singled out. This sadly reminded me of my own new Hungarian neighbours who have anglicised their names to try and fit in.
From beginning to end the novel is threaded with tension. The Howarth family are burdened with secrets that they are each trying to keep in order to protect the ones they love. It’s clear though that the secrets are destined to come out as the longer they are kept the more potentially toxic they become. In George Shuttleworth, Barrow has created a villain who is always lurking in the shadows threatening to cause heartache for the Howarth family, which ultimately he does. Cleverly though, Barrow doesn’t make George a one dimensional baddie. He is odious and repulsive but he is also a victim of violence and anger and is deeply unhappy.
I can’t recommend Changing Patterns enough; it is a top notch read that kept me glued to my kindle well into the wee hours. If you love a series then I suggest you opt for Pattern of Shadows first. If not then dive straight into this one – you won’t regret it.