#aww2018 · 2018 Reviews · a-z author challenge 2018 · Australian · historical fiction · World War II

Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

Title: We That Are Leftwe that are left small

Author: Lisa Bigelow

Published: August 23rd 2017

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 400

Genres:  Fiction, Historical

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4.5 stars

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.

My review:

Often the best stories are those taken from personal experience. We That Are Left, a novel by first time writer Lisa Bigelow, is a tale carefully drawn from the heart and the first hand experiences of Bigelow’s grandmother, who lost her husband in World War II. Bigelow’s grandfather was posted on HMAS Sydney during World War II, which was a ship that tragically went missing off the coast of Western Australia, in the year 1941. Bigelow intricately explores the impact this loss of  crew has on the women and families left behind.

At the helm of We That Are Left are two very different female leads, who are connected by a shared acquaintance. The first of these brave women is Mae, who has been married to her sweetheart Harry for six years, before he takes that fateful voyage on board HMAS Sydney. Mae longs to provide Harry with the family he has wished for, but after several miscarriages, she is finally heavily pregnant when Harry is given his posting, on the HMAS Sydney. Not long after Mae gives birth in dramatic circumstances, Harry’s ship is declared missing. Linked to Mae’s story is Grace Fowler’s journey. Grace is a determined female reporter, who will stop at nothing to get a scoop for the male dominated newspaper she works for, the Tribune. Grace suffers a professional and personal struggle, when her boyfriend Phil, also a journalist, is captured in Singapore. Word is that he is alive, but what state will be in when he returns? We That Are Left unfurls a portrait of sadness, hard times and despair. Moments of hope and treasured memories keep these two spirited women alive, in the face of loss. When rumours spread about the hope that the crew of HMAS Sydney are being kept prisoner in Singapore, all the families left behind pray for a miracle. The war tests these two women to their very core and it soon becomes clear that they will be forever changed by the war.

I could immediately gather from this novel that it was told genuinely from the heart. Bigelow displays an aptitude for bringing to life a segment of Australia’s history we often neglect. The women, family and friends left behind on the home front, while servicemen bravely go out and fight for the country’s freedom. Lisa Bigelow presents an accessible history and enthralling narrative to match this forgotten theme. Bigelow is careful to balance her compelling narrative with known facts and emotional insight. It is clear she has drawn her narrative from moving personal accounts to inform her story. The prose that emerges from this book is assured, sensitive and is accurately reflective of the historical events that occurred.

I liked how Bigleow chose to provide the reader with two contrasting female lead characters. The device of linking these two women together, simply by a common acquaintance, is a move I thought worked well. I immediately felt incredibly sorry for Mae. I connected to her awful and dramatic birth of her first daughter Katie and those overwhelming early days of parenting. I felt every moment of Mae’s darkest hours. But I also liked how Bigelow balanced these hard times with recollections and happier memories of Mae’s marriage to Harry. Mae is lucky to be supported by a loving extended family. What I learnt from Mae’s extended family was that war touches all members of a family, immediate and less immediate, such as aunts and uncles. The after effects of the loss of servicemen was widespread.

Bigelow’s representation of her second lead, Grace Fowler, was excellent. I admired Grace’s individual story and feel it was a story that needed to be told. The character of Grace gives Bigelow the power to explore contentious issues of the time. These include  women’s rights, opportunities in the workplace for women and the prejudice female workers often faced. Grace was character with so much fire in her bonnet and drive it was hard not to like her. I was a little less taken by her relationship with boyfriend , fellow journalist Phil. I didn’t feel the love as strongly as I would I hoped. Despite this small reservation, Grace Fowler is a character I am sure I will not forget in a hurry.

I am not going to shy away from the fact that my overwhelming response to We That Are Left was one of sadness and despair. This is a novel that will tug at your heartstrings and a tissue box may be of use as a side accompaniment to reading this emotional novel. Despite the melancholy, We That Are Left is a book that I whole heartedly recommend. I think it is a book that has a strong place in our history books, reminding us of the real tragedies that touched our shores during in World War II. This is also a novel that serves to awaken us to the very personal battles fought on the home front during the war. Our mighty Aussie women left behind, who tried to keep things afloat. Lisa Bigelow has certainly caught my full attention with her debut novel and I am ready to embrace more of her writing in the future.

We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow was published on August 23rd 2017 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of We That Are Left, Lisa Bigelow, visit here.

We That Are Left is book #10 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

*Book ‘b’ of the a-z author challenge 2018

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