Title: The Last Reunion
Author: Kayte Nunn
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 31st March 2021
Synopsis: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen
Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own.
Oxford, 1976. A woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.
London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.
Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House.
As war ravages the world, five women join the WASBIES – the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma), taking them right to the front lines of the war in the East, and into danger none of them thought they’d ever see. Beatrix, Bubbles, Lucy, Plum and Joy are tasked with providing food and morale for the soldiers. Yet they will experience and have to do so much more than they thought – and it won’t all be nice. Beatrix also hopes that her twin, Archie, is okay, and hopes that she might come across him during her time in the canteens.
In 1975, someone steals a collection of Japanese netsuke. This collection includes the famed fox-girl – never to be seen again. Twenty-three years later, Olivia is sent to discover the provenance of these netsuke for the art dealer she interns with – and gets more than she bargained for when she meets Bea, the elderly widow, and they head to Galway for a Wasbies New Year’s Eve reunion that will reveal more than any of them could ever have imagined or have bargained for.
Kayte Nunn is one of those authors who has a talent for taking women’s stories and women’s history – usually lesser known and giving them life. The war that the Wasbies fought is known as ‘the forgotten war’, as Kayte notes in her commentary at the back, and indicates that she found very few sources, but those she did find, informed the basis of the historical aspect of The Last Reunion. The seamless marriage of these facts and the fictional world and people is filled with emotion and gives a sensory experience of what these women went through in Burma.
Each chapter is delicately written, ensuring that the characters are formed and evolve powerfully throughout the novel, and their motivations are revealed when we, as the reader, need to know them. Secrets are a large part of this book and drives the narrative as we go between 1944/45 in Burma, and the 1999/2000 Christmas/New Year period in London and Galway – a contrast in time, place and climate that ensures each place and each character are unique, yet also allows for character growth, revelations and what friendship means. The war seeps into every page, even in the chapters set in 1999, as it is something that informs everything about the book and the netsuke, and what they mean to Bea. I loved Bea – she’s so fantastic, and I loved how she cared for Olivia and formed a friendship with her, and bonded with her over art. It is lovely to see this kind of relationship and to see various kinds of interests for characters explored.
The enduring friendship of the Wasbies is powerful, as we get to see it grow and evolve across the novel. War brought them together and showed them what it means to be courageous and come together when things look dire. This is one of those powerful stories that allows the women of all ages and generations to speak and be heard and find a way of navigating the world they live in, with a poignant example of why we always need to fight to have our voices heard even when things feel like they might never change or improve.
The Last Reunion is a moving story, and one that is important – we need to know about these women, and what they did, just as much as we know about the battles and the POW camps. The unpredictability of war is ever present throughout the novel, and nobody knows if they will all survive. It is the bonds of friendship that make this novel so powerful, and it is always delightful to read a book where friendship is at its core, proving that a book can be engaging with any kind of relationship represented, and especially a book driven by women and their bonds and strength.
I loved this book – I think it is one of my favourites by Kayte Nunn, definitely up there with The Silk House!