Title: We That Are Left
Author: Lisa Bigelow
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 23rd August 2017
Synopsis: 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.
In 1941, Australia is at war against Germany, and as they advance through Asia and the Pacific, Japan. Those in the armed forces at bases and at sea are away from their families, who are trying to make do back home. In Melbourne, two women’s lives will be inexorably changed by the events to come in Malaya, Singapore and at sea that are to come. Mae’s husband, Harry, has been assigned to the HMAS Sydney, and Mae, having just given birth, is at home under the care of family, and kept at arms length by Harry’s family at times. When the Sydney goes missing, Mae’s world begins to fall apart, and she is held together by her family, and her friends, Sam and his wife, Claire, whose kindness heals her and will eventually help her come to terms with what has happened.
In Melbourne, Grace Fowler has begun work as Sam’s secretary at the Tribune, where she meets Phil Taylor, who eventually takes a correspondents posting in Singapore to do what he can for the war, and is subsequently captured by the Japanese in 1942 after the fall of Singapore. Throughout his absence, Grace graduates from secretary to writing in the women’s pages and attending a memorial service for the HMAS Sydney, where she spies Mae – the only time they appear in the same section of the book, but do not interact. Through their separate lives, the story is about how these women, the ones that are left behind, cope with the looming war and loss of loved ones, whether dead or captured, and how they deal with grief and their hopes and dreams for themselves and their families.
We That Are Left as a novel, is more historical fiction, an homage to those left behind. Lisa got her title from the poem often read out on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day each year, For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The realities of war and war at home are a major theme in We That Are Left. By focussing in on the stories of two women, with very different lives, like the many authors who have explored World War Two in literature, Lisa Bigelow has given a human face, another aspect of humanity lost and humanity found to the war. It explores motherhood and family tensions and resolve through Mae’s story, and the staunch belief in the best outcome, even if the reality is the opposite, and the time it can take for some people to come to accept the reality they are faced with in times of war, illustrating that grief affects people differently, and acceptance of a loss can take years. Through Grace, we see the fight of a young woman who yearns to be more than a wife and a mother, more than a secretary or teacher biding her time until she weds and has babies. Grace is head strong and determined to show she can do more than answer phones and write about knitting – she can write about a daring escape and capture of enemy prisoners of war, she can write about the human side of a story, catching the spirit behind the facts that so many reporters relied on, and she is praised for it by many.
The final chapters wrap up their stories, but in a realistic way, showing what life after the war means for different people in different situations. Rather than a happily ever after, it is just an ending. Life goes on, it is what it is for these women, who have shown varying degrees of strength and vulnerability throughout the novel, both with flaws that create well rounded characters and a story that is at times hopeful, but also gut wrenchingly sad in its realism.
Written to honour those who were left and those who came back but weren’t who they were, Lisa Bigelow’s inspiration came from family stories of her grandfather, one of the 645 sailors lost on the HMAS Sydney, and the death of her grandmother not long after. It is a story of hope and the ways we cling to our humanity in times of war. I found it to be very moving, and the little bit of romance between Grace and Phil was done very well and balanced out nicely with the bulk of Grace’s story and her fight to become a cadet and write for a paper. It is one of those stories that i think is too hard to give a starred review to, because there is something exceptional about it that giving it a starred rating cannot express eloquently or sufficiently.