We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

we that are left.jpgTitle: We That Are Left

Author: Lisa Bigelow

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $29.99

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.

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aww2017-badgeIn 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.

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Small Publisher Spotlight: Transit Lounge — Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

Engaging with other cultures and ways of living beyond our own is perhaps the most powerful aspect of reading, and one reason I am doing the AWW challenge – not only to read more women writers but also to try and read more diversely. Although I often pick a book based on the plot, not…

via Small Publisher Spotlight: Transit Lounge — Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

 

Another of my small publisher posts – this time on Transit Lounge. perhaps not one that has many women writer’s on their books, rather one that publishes the stories they feel will do well.

 

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A Waltz For Matilda by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #1)

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Title: A Waltz For Matilda (Matilda Saga #1)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins AU

Published: December1 2010

Format: Paperback

Pages: 496

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: ‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong Under the shade of a Coolibah tree And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled You’ll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me…’ In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm. But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he’s wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. ‘You’ll never catch me alive, said he…’ Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl’s journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia’s early years as an emerging nation.

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Jackie French notes in her end notes about the history behind the story that during the fight for Federation, and at other times in history, the role of women can and has often been forgotten, and given way to that of men, and in the case of the history of Federation as written by those in power – mostly white men and land owners.

A Waltz for Matilda opens in 1894, seven years before Federation, with young Matilda O’Halloran sleeping in an alley to avoid what she calls the Push, so she can go to work at a jam factory, earning a pittance so she can provide food for her mother, and a roof over their heads. Set in a generic city slum that could be anywhere in Australia, Matilda is faced with a reality that others do not know, and that they will never know. She is young in years, but the work has aged her. And when her mother dies suddenly, she leaves in search of her father at a place called Drinkwater. Here, she encounters her father, and the union men fighting for a united Australia. Her father’s death inspires the song Waltzing Matilda, and this is the basis for Jackie French’s novel, a fictionalised imagining of the events that may have inspired the famous song by Banjo Paterson.

Jackie French states in her endnotes that her inspiration came from the invisibility of women in the stories – what was their role in forming the nation? Did all women just sit at home, sewing and cooking for the men? The exploration of these questions, against a backdrop of racism, classism, sexism and family secrets work together to tell this story in an effective and accessible way, using a what if the jolly swagman had had a daughter, what if she had seen him jump into that billabong to get away from the troopers and the land owner? Matilda’s answer is to take her father’s farm, Moura, and turn it into a home, with the help of Mr. Sampson and Auntie Love, two Indigenous Australians – referred to as natives in the historical context of the novel – with whom she becomes close to and they become her constant companions over the harsh years on the land during a time of constant drought. To many though, the men her father knew in the union, her friend Tommy, people in town, and the Drinkwaters next door, Matilda is not invisible, in contrast to Florence, James and Bertram Drinkwater’s cousin, who has a presence, though she takes on the expected and typical feminine roles that Matilda rejects, and through this acceptance, Florence is perhaps one of the invisible women working behind the scenes of history, rather than at the forefront like Matilda, and women like her, whose achievements should be given more focus – where they did more than just fight for suffrage and temperance – they started the fight for equality and visibility of everyone.

In addressing the issues of racism at the time, Jackie French’s use of natives sets up the attitudes of the time for the modern reader. Though these attitudes are somewhat softened, they are still there. As a reader, and an Australian, I find it important that they are present – to recognise all facets of history, all the faces, the powerful and the powerless, whether based on sex/gender, class and race. Literature that deals with these issues is confronting – and it is meant to be. Seeing an Australian Woman Writer who has lived through times where certain ways of thinking were accepted, and where she heard stories of the fight for suffrage of Australian women brings a feeling of authenticity to it: the author has heard these stories first hand, lived through some of these fights. The character of Matilda grows throughout the novel, physically, and once she learns of her heritage. She is not invisible by any means in the story, but history, as we know can tell a different story. Matilda’s fight for the visibility of those who weren’t rich and powerful had an influence on the surrounding characters – and hopefully, on readers.

Matilda is the kind of female character that can become a positive influence on girls: she steps out of what is expected of girls and women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but at the same time, she is able to step into these traditional roles as needed, with a slight twist on how she interacts with people.

I re-read this book as part of the Australian Women Writer’s challenge, and have moved onto book two in the Matilda Saga, The Girl From Snowy River. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in history, and how the nation of Australia came about. It is well researched, and Jackie French provides a summary of her research and the topics utilised in the book at the back. A Waltz For Matilda is enjoyable, and I hope the rest of the series is as well.

Reading in 2017: My Goals

With 2016 coming to an end, I have started thinking about my wrap up post of the books I have read, and the challenge I participated in – a post I will only write once I know my challenge results. This will be included in a 2016 wrap up post of what I have read, how many books I read, and hopefully, a list of the top five I read, though that might be a bit of a challenge, having read so many good books this year.

Next year, I am aiming to read as much as I did this year, or perhaps more, and hopefully, do more reviews, more blog posts and more about reading, authors, and other posts that come to mind. I missed out on a few significant literary anniversaries this year, so I plan to keep on top of that. I plan to try and review other books as well as what I am sent by publishers – the beauty there is I can review older books as well, and hopefully introduce these to new readers. This year my Goodreads goal was 45 books – so far I have surpassed that by at least 20, including re-reads of a few favourites, but more on that in my yearly wrap up post.

2017 is my first year without studies. I will be reading more as a result, probably, and writing more. More blog posts, definitely, in the categories mentioned above. I hope to read some more non-fiction, in particular a book I picked up about pre 1788 Australia, pre-colonialism. We need books like this to do away with common misconceptions taught within our history classes, to discover the history we never get to learn in school – or even university in my case.

I am eagerly awaiting the release of a few books, some of which I hope to receive review copies for, but will hopefully purchase them if I don’t:

Frogkisser! By Garth Nix, towards the end of February

Draekora by Lynette Noni on the first of April (I may be receiving a review copy of this book from Pantera Press)

A Dangerous Language by Sulari Gentill – The 8th Rowland Sinclair novel

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I am sure there are others, however, those are my top four and I eagerly await their release, especially the Pantera Press ones to find out what happens to Rowly and his friends, but also to Alex, Jordan, Bear and D.C. after that heart stopping cliffhanger in Raelia! At some stage, I may need to re-read Arkanae and Raelia before reading Draekora!

Apart from that, I will be reading any review copies I am sent, and trying to read all my other books. There are so many I need to read.

Looking foward to the coming year of reading, and will hopefully be able to set my challenges if any, early in the New Year.

The Book Muse

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