#BookReview: The Beauty Shop by Suzy Henderson

War Era Historical
Biographic Fiction

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War changes everyone, inside and out. The remarkable true story of the Guinea Pig Club.

England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.

My friends and acquaintances are used to my tastes and rarely question my affinity for war era fiction, but I'd be lying if I said that Suzy Henderson's The Beauty Shop didn't raise a few eyebrows. The first person to notice accused me of getting soft as I was obviously reading a story that takes place in a hair salon. The second sarcastically asked me to explain the role guinea pigs played in the greatest conflict of the twentieth century. Both individuals were surprised when I set the record straight, but the two incidents emphasized how easy it misinterprets the nature and scope of this surprising debut.

For those feeling a little lost, the novel's title is actually a reference to Ward III at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. Headed by Dr. Archibald McIndoe, the ward was tasked with the treatment of airmen who suffered disfiguring burns and/or crash-related injuries in the line of duty. The work was challenging on its own, but it was complicated by the emotional instability of the patients and the staff was forced to turn to both the experimental and unorthodox in their effort to the restore the independence, self-image, and well-being of the men they served. Recognizing the humor of their situation, the airman likened themselves to guinea pigs and formed a mutual support network that would total more than six hundred by the end of the war. Their willingness to go under the knife led to revolutionary gains in the field of plastic surgery and gave rise to a legacy that is both extraordinary and humbling.

The Beauty Shop pays tribute to this lesser-known chapter of the war by chronicling the fictional experiences of a young American pilot, his girl, and his surgeon. I personally found Mac and Stella interesting in their own ways, but it was Henderson's characterization of McIndoe and her recreation of his ward that set the book the apart in my eyes. I felt the author's illustration of the charismatic surgeon and his innovative approach to treating both the body and the mind fascinating and feel the narrative as a whole gives unique insight to war era medicine and the personnel at the forefront of its development.

Parts of the narrative, namely Stella's love life, felt needlessly complex and I think that Henderson could have done more with the supporting cast, but in looking back on the time I spent with the novel I think it safe to say that its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Henderson has room to grow as a storyteller, but her debut release speaks to both the creativity and compassion of her pen and I for one can't wait to see how she'll channel those talents into her next project. Highly recommended to fans of light romance and world war historicals.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: December 21, 2016

"He was trying to show these boys that they still had lives worth living. How could he do that if silly girls were going to look horrified whenever they saw a disfigured face? His staff needed to treat them all normally otherwise his methods would fail, and he was not about to let that happen. No, he would have to recruit some fresh faces. The boys could do without these young, well-meaning types who had no idea how to control their emotions or disguise their feelings."