You can’t live in Australia for any length of time without hearing all about the Battle of Gallipoli and Australia’s role in WWI. But you can, apparently, live in Australia for a full decade without hearing much of anything about the Australian experience in WWII. Enter We That Are Left, which follows the lives of two Australian women in wartime.
I really liked this book for its educational value. I spent so much time Googling stuff and falling down WWII history rabbit holes. (Did you know they sold souvenirs salvaged from the wreckage of Japanese midget submarines that were sunk in Sydney Harbour? Or that some German POWs plotted elaborate prison breaks just for something to do, knowing all the while they were basically on a big island and there was nowhere to escape to? So many Google rabbit holes!) I give it top marks for expanding my knowledge of my adopted country’s history. Unfortunately, I found the history far more interesting than the fiction.
There’s no plot to this book, per se. It’s more of a slice-of-life historical focusing on the everyday struggles of Mae, a housewife and new mother, and Grace, a young woman working at a newspaper. Mae’s storyline tries to give insight into the lives of the families of missing/dead military personnel, while Grace’s storyline tries to give broader insight into the state of the country as a whole.
Mae suffers depression and denial after her husband’s ship, the HMAS Sydney II, goes missing and is presumed sunk. Thanks in large part to government censorship and the rampant rumor mill that strives to fill in the gaps, she spends much of the book refusing to get on with her life because her beloved Harry is surely a POW and must be trying to get home and is definitely not dead, nosiree. I think I might’ve liked Mae if I’d gotten to meet her at some other point in her life before the effects of war tore her to pieces. As it is, the reader meets her when she’s a whiny, judgmental, cranky pregnant lady, and then gets to know her as a whiny, judgmental, cranky, depressed war widow in denial. Maybe it was an accurate portrayal of someone in that situation, but not seeing enough of not-stressed-pre-wartime Mae, I didn’t have a frame of reference for how much war changed her. Long story short, I didn’t like her. At all. I found myself sympathizing more with the people around her than I did with her, and I don’t think that was the intent.
Grace battles sexism in the workplace as she pursues her dream of becoming a reporter. She wants to have a career in journalism and get her man, and she’s so full of pluck it oozes from her pores. I felt her character was the more interesting of the two, and it was a shame that her storyline was used primarily as an expositional tool for info-dumping historical events into the narrative. Putting her in a newsroom secretary/reporter role for this purpose was clever, but the drawback is that Grace is a passive observer most of the time. She sees the government censorship issue through the eyes of her employer. She hears about things like Japanese subs trying to bomb Sydney from other reporters. Even when she’s the one out there reporting, she often takes a back seat. (See for example the entire chapter on the Australian Women’s Land Army which, while educational, does little to move the story or Grace’s character development forward.) It’s interesting from an “I love how much I’m learning about WWII Australia” angle, but not so much from a “Wow, I love this character” angle.
Holy cow, I’m chatty today! But I have one more thing to say, and it’s totally inconsequential, but it made me laugh. The author says this book was inspired by her grandfather, who died on the Sydney, and her grandmother, who died before the ship was finally found in 2008. So basically, Mae and Harry are her fictional grandparent stand-ins. How awkward was it to write their sex scenes? O.o