We That Are Left…
A moving debut novel about love and war, and the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, hope and despair.
Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry’s ship is missing.
Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.
Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae’s neighbour and Grace’s boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae’s life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.
Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.
Based on her own grandmother’s experience of losing her husband when the HMAS Sydney went down, debut author Lisa Bigelow sensitively explores the impact of the sinking of HMAS Sydney and the fall of Singapore on the lives of Australian women left behind during wartime. I am a big fan of historical fiction set before, during, and immediately after WWII, but much of my reading has concentrated on events in Europe rather than the Pacific, and very few have focused on the lives of those ‘left behind’ in Australia.
In We That Are Left, Lisa Bigelow introduces us to two different young women, Mae and Grace. Mae is a young mother whose husband, a sailor, has been declared missing, lost at sea, while Grace is a young working girl whose boyfriend, a journalist, has been captured during the fall of Singapore. These women are very different from each other, and while supporting characters within the novel connect them, the two women themselves remain unconnected for the entire story. What they do share though, is the experience of living in a free country located on the fringes of a World at War, a nation holding its breath against invasion, with most of its able bodied men called away for duty. They are women left behind, picking up the reins and standing in for men, working jobs they would never previously have been able to, making decisions that would have previously been made for them. What Lisa Bigelow has demonstrated with such skill and finesse, is how the war not only changed the men who served, but it also changed the women who were left behind.
Lisa Bigelow is a welcome new voice to historical fiction. Her style is instantly engaging, her narrative easy to read and enjoy, and her characters realistic and enduring. I thoroughly enjoyed Grace’s tendency to headline her experiences; I found this to be one of those endearing little quirks that serve to instantly bond you to a character. She was a tenacious young woman, determined to be a journalist, despite the odds that were stacked quite high against her. But she persevered, continued to try, try, and try again. I loved that about her. I enjoyed her reporting adventures, particularly when she researched for her story on the women who made up the Land Army. These are all bits and pieces of Australia’s war history that are not always well known, particularly outside of the local areas they relate to, but they are utterly fascinating to me and the way Lisa wove these anecdotal war experiences into the story was excellent. Likewise with the coverage of the war by the paper Grace worked for. I learnt so much from this novel, it was incredible, yet I never once felt like I was reading a ‘regurgitation of history’, for want of better phrasing. History was naturally threaded through the story, complementing it, but never overshadowing. The very best type of historical fiction.
Mae and her extended family were also enjoyable to spend time with. Mae had a heavy burden, a traumatic birth experience leading to a lack of bonding with her new baby, endless worry over her missing husband; the unravelling of Mae was desperately sad to witness. I was so proud of how she triumphed over her despair, yet still remained ever hopeful for her husband as she got on with her life and carved out her own place within the community. I adored her aunt and uncles, they were just gorgeous, their support of Mae so wonderful, loving her, holding her up when necessary, giving her a dose of reality when they felt she lacked it; all in all, this was a great family, an excellent set of characters.
I am so impressed by this novel; as a debut offering it really holds its own. Lisa Bigelow has such a great flow to her writing, the story well-paced, and the dialogue spot on. I enjoyed We That Are Left so much and highly recommend it to all who enjoy WWII fiction. The title of the novel is very poignant, as disclosed in the author notes in the back of the book, and so fitting when you realise its origin. I can’t wait to see what else Lisa has waiting in the wings for us.
Thanks is extended to the publisher, Allen and Unwin, for providing me with a copy of We That Are Left for review.
We That Are Left is book 50 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.