Book Club: We That Are Left

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Author: Lisa Bigelow
ISBN: 978-1-76029-700-8
RRP: $29.99
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.

Lisa Bigelow can be found on Facebook and her Website.

We That Are Left is published by Allen & Unwin and available now from Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin 10 of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading We That Are Left so please be aware there may be spoilers in the comments below.


11 thoughts on “Book Club: We That Are Left

  1. Whilst We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow is a debut fictional story about the effects of war, it is a story inspired by real-life events involving Lisa’s grandfather, who was one of the 645 crew members lost on the ship, HMAS Sydney, in 1941.

    The story begins in Melbourne in 1941, and spans across the years to 1947.
    There are two main female characters – Mae Parker and Grace Fowler.
    Mae has been happily married to Harry, a naval engineer, for 6 years. They are about to bring their first child into the world when Harry gets posted to the HMAS Sydney, a dream that he has been waiting for.
    Shortly after the birth of their daughter Katie, Mae discovers that Harry’s ship has gone missing. The news leaves her distraught and she struggles to believe that Harry may never return.

    Grace is a feisty and determined young woman who works at a daily newspaper office and is keen on making her childhood dream of becoming a reporter a reality.
    It is there that she meets fellow journalist Phil Taylor, and they begin dating. But when Phil is sent to work in Singapore to report on the Allied troops, he is captured, and Grace does not know if or when he will ever return.

    Both of these women are very brave, and have to endure the effect that the war has on their lives.
    Mae remains hopeful that she will be reunited with Harry. Her loving family of aunt and uncles offer their love and support and help her get back on her feet as she faces challenges with raising Katie whilst clinging to the hope that she will see Harry again.
    This is a book that drew me in and I really enjoyed it.
    Having the focus on the two women gave the reader a very good insight into how war effects not only the servicemen and women, but their loved ones, for generations to come.

  2. Although this is a fictional story by Lisa, it certainly shows other aspects of tragedy that happened in real life on the HMAS Sydney when 645 of its crew died in the year 1941.

    We follow two characters amongst this book of Mae Parker and Grace Fowler who you will just love reading about. We live in the year of 1940 and in Melbourne. The two characters are written so you do not get lost in the chapters. It was easy to read and understand.

    Mae is married to her sweetheart Harry and his dream was always to be posted on the HMAS Sydney. He and Mae have a beautiful daughter called Katie.

    Grace grew up in the newspaper industry and her passion was to be a reporter and the best female reporter which was quite unknown back then. It was a man’s world back in those days where women are seen to be just be at home tending to the home and kids. Grace becomes involved with Phil also a journalist but he is sent to report in Singapore and is captured with Grace not knowing when or if he will ever return.

    There are other characters in this book that you will endear your heart too and there are times in the book where I cried my eyes out.

    When news came through to Mae that the HMAS Sydney was missing, she just kept strong throughout it all thinking that Harry will return. Others would have doubts but Mae could always feel Harry around her and she would have vivid dreams of him.

    I could not put this book down because I wanted to know if young men would be returning. You can always have hope.

    Due to my own dad being in WWII and hearing his stories about those times and even him mentioning the HMAS Sydney, Pearl Harbour really inspired me with reading this book and truely getting to know more on how people lived during those days.

    Thank you to Beauty and Lace and Allen & Unwin for allowing me to read this book and thank you to Lisa Bigelow for following your idea from knowing that your grandfather was amongst the crew that lost his life. I love the title of the book as I grew up hearing those words of They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

    This book will certainly touch your hearts and bring tears as you read. I know it did for me.

  3. I loved this book ‘We that are left’ and found it very hard to put down. The storyline really drew me in and Lisa Bigelow should be commended for writing a different type of war story that was beautiful and didn’t give me nightmares.

    In a lot of other war stories the focus isn’t on the women and children who are left behind, or they are mentioned but aren’t the main focus of the story. This book was different and really spoke to me about how it was for those people left behind when their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers went to fight for their country.

    Reading about Grace’s difficulties with her job was interesting too and it’s not new news but imagine being treated like all you could do with your life was basically be a secretary and then have children.

    I admired how both women stood by their men and was really hoping that the thing that happened in the end wouldn’t happen. It was so sad and I was sure that the story wouldn’t end that way. I didn’t know the story of the HMAS Sydney and so I didn’t know what happened.

    Thank you Beauty and Lace for another fantastic read >:o)

  4. We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow is an interesting and enjoyable read. I have never chosen to read a historical story about the war time before as I didn’t think it would interest me but this story had just the right balance of history and an enthralling story line that kept me reading right to the last page.

    This book explores the role of women at home in Australia during WW2 and how traditional roles were challenged. It depicted the women who lost their husbands and sons to the war and the different ways they coped with the tragedy. Their incredible strength and also their weaknesses as they struggle to cope, Trying to get on with their life when their loved one is missing and information is minimal.

    Women of different ages will be able to relate to this story well as the two main characters are quite different. Through Grace, a young determined career woman, we see her fight prejudice to be able to become a reporter in a male dominated career. Through Mae, a young mother and housewife, we see her struggle to accept motherhood and the loss of her husband.

    Overall, I found this book very interesting, emotional and easy to read. I would recommend to anyone. Thank you Beauty and Lace for a great read!

  5. I must say that I absolutely enjoyed sitting down and reading We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow.
    For a debut novel I thought it was stunning and once I started reading this novel I didnt really want to put it down.
    I love reading Australian themed novels and this book is set around WW2 and explores the roles women had to play differently in their lives as their loved ones went off to war .
    These roles were ones that in that era they wouldnt normally have to play. It also explores their lives and relationships as they are tested not knowing what is happening with their families that are away at war.
    It shows a great strength between these women at that time in our country’s history .We follow the lives of two women . Grace , a young women determined to follow her career path as a reporter and all the hardships that come with that choice in that era .We also have Mae, a young mother and house wife who also has her own sets of problems to face and fight through.
    I would thoroughly recommend this novel .
    Thanks to Beauty and Lace and Allen and Unwin for allowing me to read and review this novel

  6. I found this to be a meaningful story which gives insight into the depth of the grief suffered during times of war. Those waiting at home for that dreaded telegram to be delivered then hoping against all hope that “missing” persons would return home one day. –what a heartbreaking experience to endure. Then also to recognise how difficult it was for loved ones to comfort the wounded in body and soul as they could not find an avenue to express their trauma. I have heard such stories from my parents and grandparents who had never healed from the grief of war and the “sacrifices” made by all. I found all of this gently and sensitively touched upon within this beautiful story. A great tribute to those who lost their lives on the HMAS Sydney and to their loved ones who were left to deal with their grief.

  7. I found this book to be a most moving & compelling storyline that I have read this year

    Anything relating to a war which there have been too many tugs at the heartstrings of everyone & this book shows us the in depth struggle and heartache of the two main characters
    We have Mae who as a wife & new mother must endure an agonising wait to see if her Harry will return home from the war
    Then we have Grace a womans libber before her time who longs to be a reporter in a mans world
    both very strong women in their own right & this book will show you how strong
    A book that is hard to put down & draws you into that horrendous time of war but is so well written that you just love it
    Thanks Beauty & lace & special thanks to the author Lisa Bigelow

  8. The storyline of this book was something different to one I would normally choose to read, but I found the blurb interesting so was glad to be given the opportunity to read it. It is a fictional story but is based on real events so it is quite insightful of a time none of us experienced.

    The book is based around two main characters, whose lives almost overlap in small ways as they live in the same city but they never actually do. Mae is a first time mother who is struggling to cope with the news that her husband is missing after no signs of the HMAS Sydney can be found. She always holds hope that he will come home, no matter what any one else says and she is determined to stay loyal in the hope he will return.

    Grace is a young female who is striving against the gender barriers of the time to become a reporter when she falls in love with Phil only a mere weeks before he leaves for an overseas posting. Phil is captured while there and Grace is uncertain whether he is alive and whether she will ever get to see him again.

    The story is told from the perspectives of both characters and we get insight into how hard the war was for the women and children left behind. We meet many of their family and friends along the way who are also affected in different ways, and we get a little bit of understanding of how huge events in our history affected families at the time, and the impact it had on them for many years to come.

    This book was well written and I really enjoyed reading it. My only disappointment was that the ending didn’t give us more detail. I wanted to know a little more, particularly about how Grace’s life ended up – we only got a small snippet and there were many unanswered questions left.

  9. We that are left is a beautifully crafted work by debut author Lisa Bigelow. The story is set in Melbourne in the early 1940’s during World War 2 and follows two women, Grace Fowler who desperately wants to break the mold and become a real reporter, and Mae Parker, married to Harry a dashing naval engineer.

    Married for 6 years Mae is desperate to have a family and having miscarried three pregnancies she is hopeful that this latest pregnancy will result in a full term baby. Heavily pregnant Harry announces that he has received his dream posting, to the HMAS Sydney, and that he leaves in just a few days. With Harry away Mae goes to stay with her friends Claire and Sam where she unexpectedly goes into labour, giving birth to a healthy girl but requiring surgery that will prevent her from having any more children. When the baby is four months old Harry manages to get leave to come home for the weekend, but things don’t go as planned, Mae is still tired and sore, and struggling with baby blues as well as feeling she can never live up to her mother-in-law’s expectations. As news comes in of the disappearance of the Sydney and all its crew Mae must deal with her guilt over not having been the perfect wife that weekend.

    Meanwhile Grace has fallen for the gorgeous athletic journalist Phil Taylor at the paper where Sam is the editor. Due to circumstances beyond his control Phil is in Singapore when it is captured by the Japanese and ends up in Changi prison.

    As a journalist herself, and having a grandfather who was lost in the mystery of the disappearance of HMAS Sydney, Bigelow eloquently describes the workings of newspapers of the time and captures the experience of the wives, mothers and girlfriends left behind when their men were caught up in the war, the uncertainty of knowing what had happened to their men, having to learn to fend for themselves, and then dealing with the changed men who came back.

    I loved the secondary characters within book,in particular Et, William, and Arnold, but found the ending a little disappointing almost as though the author felt she needed to end the book, but wasn’t quite sure how to bring it to a strong close.

    However, overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it

    1. Whoops, forgot to thank Beauty and Lace and Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read and review We That Are Left!

  10. We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow is set in wartime Melbourne and rural Victoria.
    The story is loosely based on the loss of the HMAS Sydney and all its crew in November 1941. The ship sank in the waters of Western Australia.

    Our two main characters are women. Gina Fowler who dreams of becoming a reporter but has settled on working at a newspaper office in the meantime. He she meets Phil , a journalist at the paper were she works. But before long he is sent to Singapore to report on the war.
    Mae Parker, married to navel engineer, Harry, and who is pregnant with the couple’s first child. Harry’s dream is to get a posting on the HMAS Sydney and he leaves his pregnant wife to do this.

    Throughout the book we learn more about these women and their strength and courage especially when their loved ones go missing.

    Tis was an enjoyable read and great to read a book with such strong female characters.
    Thank you Beauty and Lace and Allen & Unwin for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book.

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