Book Review – Letters From Alice by Petrina Banfield

First published, 2018

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The story follows Alice, a twenty-eight-year-old almoner (a sort of hospital-based social worker), living in East London in the early 1920s.

As Alice finds herself in the middle of an intrigue between a teenage mother, a doctor with misgivings about the almoner (and women, generally), a charming fundraiser and an elderly couple struggling in poverty, she must do whatever she can to assist. But in a time before the NHS, when depending on their means people had to pay towards their care costs, there is precious little known about mental health and little provision for women’s specific needs, let alone their autonomy. So how will Alice manage such a case load? And are the people around her really what they seem?

What comes over in this novel is a well-written story with some documentary aspects – lots of solid information and quotes, as well as some very memorable characters.

It’s clearly a love letter to the almoners – a group of people and a type of work I didn’t know much about before reading this book. I liked Alice’s can-do, whatever-it-takes attitude at the beginning of the book, but grew impatient with her when she decided on a course of enthusiastic amateur detective work.

That said, this was a very informative book with beautifully constructed scenes. One of my favourite parts was:

“Alice picked up pace, the bells of Southwark Cathedral jangling in time with her steps. As they neared Whitechapel, walking in the same streets stalked by Jack the Ripper a few decades earlier, they passed several tenements, silent but for the distant yowls of a stray dog. With shoeless children using stones for marbles on the icy pavements and coatless beggars huddling against crumbling walls, it was an area well known to the almoners.”
5% in, Chapter One, Letters From Alice by Petrina Banfield