Review – Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

By | September 24, 2015

Summer, 1962. Twenty-year-old Vivien Epstein, a Jewish hairdresser from Manchester, arrives in London following the death of her father. Alone in the world, she is looking for Jack Fox, a man she had a brief but intense love affair with some months before. But the only address she has for him leads to a dead end.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Vivien convinces Barb, the owner of Oscar’s hair salon in Soho, to give her a job. There, she is swept into the colourful world of the sixties – the music and the fashions, the coffee bars and clubs.

But still, Vivien cannot forget Jack. As she continues to look for him, her search leads her into the fight against resurgent fascism in East London, where members of the Jewish community are taking to the streets, in and around Ridley Road. Then one day Vivien finally spots Jack, but her joy is short-lived when she discovers his secret…

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom was published in hardback and for Kindle by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December last year, and is published in paperback today (24th September). I devoured this wonderful book in a single sitting yesterday, and absolutely loved it.  

At one level, it’s something of a coming of age story. Vivien Epstein, very likeable but also a bit naive and idealistic, moves from Manchester to London on the death of her father: she finds new friends and an increase in confidence when she starts work at Oscar’s hair salon, and searches for the love of her life. At another level, it’s a wonderful love story – the story of Vivien’s passion for Jack, the young man who stole her heart. It’s also a gripping thriller, tense and dramatic, constructed quite perfectly to be a real page-turner. 

But then there’s the overarching theme of the growth of fascism and anti-Semitism, and the struggles of the anti-fascist members of the 62 Group to overcome it – a horrifying part of recent history that I’ve honestly never read about before. I was a child in the 60s, with my own Dansette record player and treasured single records: this skilled author uses such small details to bring the setting and period vividly to life, and the existence of such horror and evil set against such a familiar swinging 60s background only increases its impact. This is a fictional story set against situations grounded in fact, and grounded in meticulous research – and it’s a totally absorbing read. 

I loved Jo Bloom’s writing style – she creates wonderful characters who leap, fully rounded, off the page (I so loved the girls at the salon) and, through her wonderful descriptions, the setting becomes quickly very real and wholly familiar. I absolutely loved this book – both as a gripping read and as an important reminder of a period of history now largely forgotten.

My thanks to the author and publishers W&N for my review copy.

Jo Bloom has worked as a freelancer in the communications field for the past fifteen years with a focus on arts publicity and e-learning. She also contributed to the book review section of Time Out, London for a few years. Prior to this she lived and worked in Prague and New York. She was inspired to write Ridley Road when she met a Jewish anti-fascist who’d lived in the East End all his life and participated in numerous street battles with the fascists alongside both the 43 Group and the 62 Group. She lives in Brighton with her husband and young son. 

Jo Bloom has an excellent website where you can find out more about the author and her writing.