Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts

by Mary Gibson

An ‘impulse buy’ on my Kindle, which had received encouraging user reviews and sounded like a good read.  And so it proved to be.

This is quite a long book and there is a lot going on.  The narrative starts in 1911, when the main character, Nellie Clark, is sixteen years old, and concludes in early 1919.  The ‘custard tarts’ are the women who work in the Pearce Duff factory in Bermondsey, East London, manufacturing custard and other sweets. Life is hard, and the circumstances of their hand-to-mouth existence are vividly captured.

Nellie, whose mother has already died, is attracted to a young man who is active in the labour movement, campaigning for higher wages for the custard tarts.  Another young man competes in vain for her attention.  The story follows her loves, hopes and disappointments against a background of poverty, industrial unrest and, in the second half of the book, war.

The story is told entirely from Nellie’s point of view, which I find more believable than if there had been descriptions of battle scenes at the Front – but the author imagines the reality of work, home life and war in working class families in the early twentieth century very effectively.