About the Book:
Sarah and Hannah are on a cruise from San Diego, California to Sydney, Australia. Sarah, Hannah’s grandmother, is returning to the country of her birth, a place she hasn’t seen since boarding the USS Mariposa in 1945. Then she, along with countless other war brides, sailed across the Pacific to join the American servicemen they’d married during World War II.
Now Hannah is the same age Sarah was when she made her first journey, and in hearing Sarah tell the story of her life, realises the immensity of what her grandmother gave up.
The Passengers is a luminous novel about love: the journeys we undertake, the sacrifices we make and the heartache we suffer for love It is about how we most long for what we have left behind. And it is about the past – how close it can still feel – even after long passages of time.
I so enjoyed this novel, The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht. As you all know, historical fiction is my favourite, with war stories topping my preference within the genre, particularly ones that explore the lives of those living alongside war (as opposed to fighting in it), either at the home front, or in an invaded country. I guess this qualifies loosely as both: Australia being the home front that was invaded by American Servicemen to aid in the protection of our shores. This story orbits around the phenomenon of war brides, focusing on one in particular, Sarah, a nineteen year old country girl swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance with an urge to break free from home. I really liked Sarah, but I’ll return to her shortly. First, I just want to expand on the whole notion of war brides because the statistics cited within the novel are rather exceptional.
“The Army has created an organisation to handle every detail of transport of dependents of Americans from overseas – estimated to total 50,000 wives and 20,000 children…
All the husbands have to do will be to meet the train and take delivery of his wife after signing for her.”
I’m thinking that these figures included England, Australia, and any other European nations populated by American Servicemen during WWII. In Australia alone, that population drop would have been detrimental on the back of Australian Serviceman deaths, but say it does include England, and parts of Europe, this loss of women in the childbearing age group would have still been significant for all of the nations affected. Except for America who got a population boost. Fascinating to contemplate. I couldn’t resist including that little bit on the end; how convenient, just sign on the dotted line and off you go. Just like collecting a parcel.
Back to Sarah. She was quite a complex character. In some ways, very typical of her era:
“Not long after I got the job at the Quartermaster Corps I put a wedding dress on layby at Grace Bros. Wedding dresses were becoming scarce, and I didn’t want to miss out.”
This gave me a laugh. No boyfriend, much less a fiancé, but the expectation of being a bride was so commonplace that you just bought a dress regardless. Yet, Sarah was also a modern young woman who wanted more out of life. She didn’t know how to go about it, marrying for excitement and escape, rather than any true depth within a relationship. She was brave though, and took a bold step that many would have avoided, and I loved the way her path smoothed out, life offering her that something more she’d long been seeking.
This novel is split between eras, but not in the traditional way. Sarah is on a cruise as an eighty-something, returning to Australia after more than sixty years to reunite with the family she has left. Accompanying her is her granddaughter, Hannah. All throughout the journey, Sarah tells Hannah her life story, and this is where the past and present collide. I liked the way this all came together, the sharing of memories within a storytelling context. It bridged the years well and flowed beautifully, unfolding at a well evened pace.
I have to say though, I really didn’t connect to Hannah. It’s difficult to appreciate a character with a disorder or addiction; the very nature of their suffering ensures a degree of selfishness. Her self-hatred really began to wear me down, and I got to the end of the novel feeling no different about her. To me, her only purpose was to provide a set of ears for Sarah’s life story. Everything else seemed a distraction. And I didn’t really feel the authenticity of her disorder. The reasons for it seemed misappropriated and I felt her issues ran deeper than what was alluded to.
Overall, The Passengers is an exceptionally good read. There were times when Eleanor Limprecht had me spellbound by her beautiful prose. I loved her descriptions of America through Sarah’s fresh Australian gaze, particularly all the cultural differences. The difficulties associated with migrating alone to a new country, married to a man you hardly knew, with the expectation of assimilation into a never before met family, were well explored. Likewise, the homesickness, the loneliness, the sheer difference of everything; I was able to appreciate Sarah’s predicament with ease. I’m going to leave you with this passage, my favourite from the novel. It showcases the strong imagery Eleanor infuses into her narrative, and gives a good sense of Sarah, when she was quite possibly at her lowest.
“I was leaving behind everything I’d imagined for us, only it didn’t exist; it had never existed outside my head. It was in the trenches of New Guinea, maybe, the jungle prison, the rotting wounds of men. In my mother’s ear pressed to the radio, my father’s gaze as his empty glass was refilled with beer. Roy in the dark park, kneeling before me in the damp grass. Useless hope, chances we’d never have. Instead it was the flies on the filmy-eyed horses, the knowledge that life would never seem so full of possibility again.”
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Passengers for review.
About the Author:
Eleanor was born and raised in the US, Germany and Pakistan but now lives in Sydney, Australia. Eleanor’s previous novels, What Was Left and Long Bay were both published by Sleepers Publishing to critical acclaim.