Reviewed by Emma Kingston
Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts follows the story of Nellie Clark, a factory worker at Pearce Duff’s custard powder factory in Bermondsey in 1911. At the age of just sixteen, and in the absence of her mother, Nellie already has responsibilities to help support her family, her younger brothers and sisters and her father. She works long hours in difficult conditions for a meagre wage. Her best friend Lily keeps her sane, and her crush on Lily’s handsome brother Ted occupies her mind when she isn’t struggling to keep her family together.
Ted isn’t the only one competing for her affection though. Sam, one of the delivery boys, holds a torch for Nellie too and struggles to vie for her attention. In the background, a rising anger about working conditions for women leads to strike; a possible threat to Nellie’s ability to provide for her family, and as the story develops, the likelihood of war becomes more and more imminent. But how will it affect Nellie’s cuckoo nest family?
Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts had me gripped only five pages in. Gibson’s has a warm tone to her writing that made the characters' passions and personalities leap off the page. The direction of the story was at times predictable, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment reading it. There were parts that tugged unrelentingly at my heartstrings, and parts that left me wanting to jump for joy. It is not necessarily a book I would have picked up in the shop, but I am so pleased it made it onto my reading list because it was not only a great read, it was a great education. I knew very little about the strikes of 1911, however this book left me hungry to know more.
Above all, Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts impressed on me the importance of taking time to hear your relatives’ stories and experiences. The inspiration behind the book was Gibson’s own family – her grandmother worked in Pearce Duff’s custard factory before the war, and continued to work there for most of her life.
I think that it would make a fabulous TV series of the Downton Abbey ilk (though at completely the opposite end of the class spectrum). A real triumph and I would certainly read more books by Mary Gibson in the future.
Mary Gibson’s Website