Author: Lisa Bigelow
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
We That Are Left is the debut of Australian Lisa Bigelow; a tale of love, hope and grief in wartime Melbourne and rural Victoria. A fictional story inspired by the loss of the HMAS Sydney and it’s 645 crew in the waters off Western Australia in November 1941.
The story has two protagonists, two very different young women who are seemingly unrelated but Bigelow deftly weaves their stories to discover that it really was a small world in Melbourne in the 1940s.
We follow Mae Parker and Grace Fowler in alternating chapters, not necessarily chapter for chapter, from early 1941 through to 1947. Their stories are told in the third person to always be sure exactly whose life we were following.
Bigelow paints a vivid picture of Melbourne life in the 1940s, in the midst of a war but far enough away that everyday life seems to carry on; unless, like Mae, you are married to someone involved with the forces or are involved with the news.
Grace Fowler grew up around the newspaper in her small rural home town, she has always dreamed of becoming a reporter but her father is adamant that it is no place for her. She heads to Melbourne and finds work at a newspaper, as a secretary. The news is in Grace’s blood and working at the paper helps but it certainly doesn’t dampen her desire to be a reporter one day.
She is a very good secretary which makes Sam even less likely to allow her to move into a reporting role, but Grace never gives up. She spends time working on story ideas and leaving them on his desk, always hoping that one day she will get a chance and be offered a cadetship.
Mae Parker is heavily pregnant and married to Harry, who has just received his dream posting on the HMAS Sydney. Mae doesn’t want him to go but she suffers with strong insecurities and doesn’t want to risk upsetting him so goes along with it; always hoping that his next lot of leave will see him stay at home and become a family with her and their baby.
They get one weekend of leave together after the baby is born and there are so many demands made on their time that quality time together is almost impossible to find. Not long after this the news is released that the HMAS Sydney has been lost.
We That Are Left explores the effects of war on those at home, away from the fighting but not immune to the tragedy. Bigelow has written a captivating novel which, though ficitional, was inspired by the real loss of the HMAS Sydney and it’s 645 crew; one of whom was Bigelow’s grandfather.
Living through the war in any circumstances would have been tough, with stresses I can’t imagine; being in the midst of the action would have been one thing but the fear of those at home waiting for them to come home would seem interminable. The information coming back was sometimes sketchy or delayed and you could never quite be sure what your loved ones were facing.
The first and second World Wars were close enough together that there is only one generation between veterans, and the struggles they face returning from the war.
I really enjoyed the story told within these pages, the human face of the suffering as loved ones waited for news, scared of whether their loved ones would make it home. The hope that some clung to as a means to keep making it through the days.
Grace’s fight for a place in the newspaper as a reporter was interesting to watch, her determination and drive in the face of so much opposition was certainly something that has helped the women who came after her. Grace’s dedication to fulfilling her dream, regardless of public (and family) opinion. I did find her story a little sad in the end, the way things worked out for her but at the same time couldn’t help but be proud of what she achieved.
Mae was a character who had my heart breaking for her. She had it tough and her early childhood had left her with many insecurities. She was brought up by aunts and uncles who are wonderful, and they are still around to offer unwavering support. They are colourful characters that were interesting to get to know, and they demonstrated how easily we can become so full of ourselves growing up that we don’t recognise the adults around us as people in their own right, separate to us and our needs.
The extensive cast of secondary characters were interesting in their own right, all with very different experiences of the war and life in Melbourne. I was totally enthralled by the running of the newspaper, the separate daily editions and the amount of running around that went into getting out a paper in those times. I don’t think there’s every been multiple daily editions in my lifetime.
This was a book that I loved, and lost myself in, but I found there were still a few questions left that I would have liked answered at the end.
We That Are Left is book #40 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.