Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England and initially pursued a career in healthcare, specialising as a midwife. Years later, having left her chosen profession, she embarked upon a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at The Open University.
That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.
It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother in her WAAF service uniform that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother never spoke of her war service and died in 1980, taking her stories with her. When Suzy decided to research her family history and her grandmother’s war service, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories and tragedies and it is such discoveries that inform her writing today.
Having relocated to North Cumbria, she has the Pennines and the Scottish Borders in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and her debut novel, "The Beauty Shop" was released in November 2016.
HerWebsite, Wordpress, Blogger, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and LinkedIn
Despite what I've already said about never usually reading books set in this time period, I have to say that from the first page, it almost ceased to matter about the setting.
Immediately, I trusted that this author was going to provide me with a good, satisfying read. Simply, she does it properly: her writing style is wonderful, with lots of 'showing not telling' but never any showing off. There is nothing mannered or pretentious or forced. In every scene there is a light dusting of scenery, weather, furniture - just enough to let us know where we are and who we are with. The dialogue rang true to me, with speech patterns differing between the Americans and the Brits and without any jarring modern expressions to jolt me out of the past.
So to the story itself. This book could have been a fictional retelling of the remarkable people who were involved with the Guinea Pig Club, focusing on the medicine and the technical advances, and that would have been compelling. But here the author chooses to weave a love story into the saga, and it was the right decision. However astonishing the tale of the pioneers of reconstructive surgery, the impact on the lives of those affected is much more movingly told when the reader is encouraged to consider the emotional impact of these events: wives and girlfriends who turn away, the psychological traumas, the attempts at reintegration into society.
Within the love story itself, we are confronted with the brutal reality of war. The death of a character induces feelings of guilt, even though the couple are not in a relationship at the time. This must have been a frequent response to such occurrences.
The two central characters, Mac and Stella, are well-written and their story plays out realistically. Stella is a woman of her time, and displays 1940s sensibilities. It was easy to believe in her, to watch her firmly in her own world. The events which conspire to make sure that the romance is never straightforward seemed all too real; these people were living through a war, and it marked them both, in different ways.
I won't reveal the ending, but I will say that reading the epilogue, which brings some of the surviving characters into the present day, I was reminded once again of the 'realness' of it all, and I cried.
And when I'd recovered my composure, I asked Suzy a few questions:~
What inspired you to write the book - where did the story come from?
SH: I was researching Bomber and Fighter Command when I discovered the story of the Guinea Pig Club – a club formed by the burned airmen who were treated by McIndoe. At the time, I had a few ideas floating around for a novel, as you do, but nothing that grabbed me. Then, as I read on, and uncovered more about McIndoe and the club, I suddenly realised I had my story. It was such an intense feeling that gripped me and refused to let go until the story was complete.
The inspiration came from McIndoe’s unusual methods of care as opposed to his gifted and pioneering surgical ability.
For instance, he insisted on allowing the ‘boys’, as he called them, to keep a keg of watered-down beer on the ward. Then there were the nurses and volunteers. McIndoe insisted on having pretty nurses for his ward as he saw that as one way of maintaining and boosting the men’s morale. By engaging with beautiful women, McIndoe felt they would realise they still had a chance of finding a partner and having a life, despite their disfigurements. And before the term 'sexist' arises, we must remember that the 1940s were very different times.
Often these men were depressed, lost, and without hope. McIndoe took them aside, reassured them and showed them how to live again. He knew what his boys needed, and was determined they should have it, no matter the cost. He fought battles with the Air Ministry, and other government and health departments and ranted and raved until he won – but he did it all for the airmen, for their benefit, and I’m quite sure that if he hadn’t, they would have faced a very different and possibly bleak future. This was an era where disabled and disfigured people were shunned, sometimes locked away even from the eyes of society. It is still so relevant for today's society as even though we have moved on and achieved great change, there is still much discrimination and a lack of understanding and compassion.
I’m sure on the surface, McIndoe was a typical surgeon and a man’s man, but beneath it all, I sensed a huge heart and much compassion, common sense and foresight. He truly was ahead of his time and a great inspiration.
Were you able to talk to anyone who had been directly involved with the Guinea Pig Club?
SH: Firstly, I had the opportunity to talk to a dear lady and a former WAAF, Igraine Hamilton. I think it was during 1941 when she became a volunteer on the ward for a short time and she witnessed such a lot. Igraine was specifically asked by McIndoe to become a volunteer – he was a family friend. Her story was very moving indeed, and a couple of things she told me are embedded within the novel.
I also chatted with Bob Marchant who is the current club secretary of the Guinea Pig Club and has been directly involved with it for many years now. He also worked alongside McIndoe after the war, during the 1950s, up until McIndoe’s death.
Last, but not least, I had the ultimate honour of chatting directly to one of the ‘guinea pigs’, Sandy Saunders. He is the loveliest man, very gentle and he wasted no time at all in re-telling his personal story. His tale was very moving, and I confess I cried at one stage, not that I told him of course, but his voice was rich with emotion and such sorrow. His accident or crash occurred during training towards the very end of the war in 1945, and his navigator was killed. Sandy confessed he has continued to feel guilty for the death of his friend ever since and continues to have nightmares. Yes, that conversation will remain with me always, and I’m so blessed to have had the chance to speak with him.
Did you have any prior knowledge of the mechanics of, and technical skills required to fly bombers?
SH: No, none at all. I mean I knew the various parts of the B-17, and that was all, so I had a lot to learn. Thanks to the internet I managed to find a B-17 pilot training manual and also relied heavily on personal accounts of pilots and airmen who flew in B-17s during the war. I was able to pick up on various things and discovered enough to be able to write the flying scenes.
In addition, I read books, and I watched movies – movies are a fantastic resource and being a visual learner, I found them immensely helpful, especially on the technicalities of flying. It enabled me to show the effects of aerial warfare, something which is difficult to do I feel without experience. And watching movies is such a great way to spend your working day - one of the perks of being a writer!
What can readers look forward to - are you working on a second novel?
SH: Yes, I am. My next novel will be released later this year, and once again it is set during WW2. However, this story moves between England and France and features another real person – a woman. I’ve wanted to tell her story for quite a while, but I gave way to Archie McIndoe in writing the first book and she’s been patiently waiting ever since.
Buy The Beauty Shop