Book review: When My Ship Comes In by Sue Wilsher

Flo Bundell spends her days cleaning the luxury cruise ships at Tilbury docks'¦ and her nights dreaming of sailing away to a new life in the sunshine of Australia.
When My Ship Comes In by Sue WilsherWhen My Ship Comes In by Sue Wilsher
When My Ship Comes In by Sue Wilsher

But it’s 1959 and the reality is that her home is a squalid tenement block, her husband is a drunk and a gambler, and women’s rights have not yet reached the back streets of south Essex. Will she ever be able escape the poverty trap?

Sue Wilsher grew up near the Thames estuary, along with her mother and her grandparents, and her gripping, revealing and emotion-packed debut novel – much of it based on local history – pays warm tribute to the place and its people.

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Packed with drama, dark humour and shocking truths about life for working class women nearly 60 years ago, When My Ship Comes In is a compelling first novel, a gritty page-turner which stars one very ordinary woman and her hard-fought battles to forge a better life for herself and her three children.

Flo’s mum Ella has always said that the important thing for a woman was to keep the family together. ‘Put up and shut up’ and that is exactly what Flo and everyone else does around their part of Essex.

A mother of three, Flo doesn’t earn much cleaning the luxury cruise liners as a ‘Tilbury scrubber’ but she is managing to secretly put away a shilling a week to buy herself a ‘ten-pound pom’ ticket on a migrant ship and take her children to Australia, ‘the land of tomorrow.’

In the meantime she must put up with her husband Fred’s drinking, gambling and violence and carry on living in the Dwellings, the rat and beetle infested tenements of Tilbury docks. It seems like a disaster when Fred loses his job at the docks and the family are evicted from their home but Fred finds work at Monday’s, a utopian leather factory with its own ‘town,’ set up to look after its workers.

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Suddenly, it seems like everything is on the up for Flo and her children, Mikey, aged eight, and 15-year-old twins Babs and Jeanie. Even sulky Jeanie seems to be thawing a little in her shiny new surroundings.

But when Fred starts drinking again, he jeopardises the family’s chance to at long last escape the poverty that has blighted their lives. Now Flo is faced with a terrible decision. Does she fight to simply keep her family together, or should she go on striving for the life she has long dreamed of?

Wilsher has produced a remarkable debut, a gritty, rollercoaster story of love and loss, hardship and hope, family and friendship and an eye-opening reality check for a new generation of women for whom such limited options in life are now, in the main, just a part of history.

Her evocation of a past era, with its struggles and stresses, and her charismatic cast of assorted characters – from lovable Flo to her more complex daughter Jeanie – are beautifully portrayed and make this a must-read for all women’s fiction fans, and for book clubs and discussion groups everywhere.

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)

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