Songs from the Violet Cafe by Fiona Kidman

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1943.   Violet Trench crosses Lake Rotorua with a small boy, but rows back without him. Sixty years later, a boat is ritually set alight on the same body of water. The intervening years see Violet open a café by the lake – the scene of an event in the summer of 1963 with lasting repercussions for Violet and her young employees. Their lives diverge, but Violet’s influence on them all – and on runaway Jessie Sandle in particular – will linger like the scent of the truffles with which she infuses her dishes.

The experience of working for Violet Trench in her small-town cafe in the summer of 1963 shapes the lives of a group of women including Jessie Sandal, who follows Violet’s influence as far as Cambodia.

Fiona Kidman explores family relationships and the difficult journey to female independence.

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I enjoyed this book.  Songs from the Violet Cafe is a story of mothers, daughters, relationships, family.

This is a beautifully written book, set in New Zealand, which tells the stories of the girls who work in the Violet Cafe and how they came to be there working for the owner of the cafe, Violet Tench. Violet is an older woman and is a major influence on the girls who work for her. She is strict but fair and helps the girls find their way in the world.

The girls are considered to be “troubled” (or perhaps they were just a bit different and didn’t quite conform to what was expected of a young woman at that time).

The book spans 60 years and starts with friends burning an old boat on the lake in 2002. We are then taken to 1943 when a woman with a young boy goes across the lake in a boat but returns without him.

There is a bit of a jump then to 1963-64 when we meet the girls who work for Violet:

Jessie who decided, on her 18th birthday, to leave the home where she lived with her mother, step-father and half-siblings. There didn’t seem to be any compelling reason – she just left the next day;

Marianne who hadn’t had contact with her mother since returning home unexpectedly one day and catching her boyfriend and her mother in bed;

Belle, the daughter of a preacher, who is engaged to Wallace a young, part-time preacher who had given her a ring on the day before her fifteenth birthday. It was agreed she could work at the Violet Cafe, washing dishes, until she was married but is now being pressured by Wallace to give up work;

Hester, the only child of widow Ruth who owns a bookshop. Hester had been engaged for five years to Owen but Ruth is not happy about Hester’s engagement; and

Evelyn, the daughter of Freda Messenger and who is filling in at the Violet Cafe until she goes to university.

They all come from very different backgrounds and experiences but they are all connected through being employed by Violet Trench.

The writing is is very, very good. and although I have no experience of New Zealand in the 1960s, I felt as if I were there and could easily picture the people and places.

Then in 1965 everything changes following a devastating incident and the story jumps to 1980 and we’re taken to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At first I thought this was a very big jump forward in time but the story is so well written it all makes sense.

The book ends where it started – in 2002. I liked the way everything linked together and characters connected.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of this New Zealand author although I realise now that she is a highly acclaimed writer.

[Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book].

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