Murgatroyd Pens has long stood as the main employer in the small northern town in which is stands. The name is synonymous with quality and alongside matriarch Jean Murgatroyd, Managing Director Brenda Arkwright has fought long and hard to keep the company in business, the interests of the business and the town the driving force behind every decision made.
When Jean Murgatroyd passes away, it leaves the future of the factory in jeopardy. Jean had been estranged from her son James following an argument back in the 1970s, and had made little attempt to see his mother before she died. James now works for American rival IPCO and Brenda fears that his return, and Jean’s will, may well spell the end of Murgatroyd Pens and the town.
Jean leaves a monogrammed fountain pen to Brenda’s daughter, one of only two in existence and Brenda knows that the time has come to face up to the past. Only Brenda and Jean know the name of the person who holds the second pen, and revealing their identity may well threaten everything that Brenda holds dear. As Brenda has a secret, one which she has never told anyone, not even her daughter, and talking about it now opens up some old wounds which Brenda knows will never truly heal. And when Jean’s will is finally read, Brenda realises that this mystery person holds the key to the future of Murgartroyd’s, a fate she may well have sealed some thirty years earlier.
‘Pen Pals’ is s really interesting story. Set in a typical northern industrial town, at the heart of the novel is the strong Murgatroyd family, dominated by patriarch Bill and his wife Jean. All of the key characters are touched by the Murgatroyds in some way, from old school friendships, to overwhelming love, for both the family and the business. It is a saga in the old fashioned sense but it works wonderfully well.
Set in both the 1970’s and the year 2000, the action starts with the death of Jean Murgatroyd and the revelation by Brenda that she has something she needs to tell her daughter. As she begins to tell her story, the action moves back in time to the early days and the founding of Murgatroyd’s by William Murgatroyd, through to his successor, his son, Bill Murgatroyd. Each generational story is told clearly and fluently, capturing the spirit of the time, from post war era in which the company is founded, to the union dominated 70’s in which most of the earlier action takes place. A good proportion of this is after Bill’s death in 1974, the point at which James sets to make his name in the business.
The constant battle between James and the Union is very believable. I am not (thankfully) old enough to remember this period of pre Thatcher history, when strikes first became a regular occurrence to settle worker disputes, and yet the sense of the constant walk out, and the impact it had upon industry rings very true. With money hungry bosses, and regimented workers, the scene is set for conflict and James’ character is such that this is guaranteed. An overwhelming sense of privilege and entitlement as well as a blinding need to prove he is better than his father, this all comes across in the portrayal of his character.
The characters are all well rounded, their flaws shining through as well as their strengths. The story creates a real sense of setting both in time and place. The sense of community typical in Northern towns at this time, the strong sense of family and the stubbornness of the two male Murgatroyd’s leading to an almost inevitable conclusion.
The twist in the tale? Well that is Brenda’s secret and not one I will reveal here. It becomes clear very early on in the book, although it is not revealed until much later the impact this will have on the future of the company or even Brenda and her daughter.
The characters of Jean and Brenda were both very likeable; dominant, charismatic women with a clear love for the company. James is flawed, but no less interesting. Even union man Derek Dawson, as militant as he is in his actions, is a character that you can warm to. I’d probably want to throttle him if he had worked for me, but then I always feel that way near old school union Reps so it shows that the character is written well.
The story is told from a third party point of view, following the main characters as they navigate their day to day, as well as allowing the reader to dip into some more of the past, setting the scene for more recent events. It was a welcome change of pace for me having read a lot of crime and thriller novels of late. It was no less compelling or engaging, the pace reflective of the setting, and I ate it up in a day. Overall, it is an enjoyable trip into the not so distant past. If you like a good family saga set in a good old English town, I would urge you to give this a go.
A very enjoyable 4 stars.
My thanks to author Martin Gore for the copy of ‘Pen Pals’ in exchange for my honest review.
‘Pen Pals’ is available to purchase here: