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Melanie Myers, Meet me at Lennon’s (#BookReview)

December 28, 2019

Book coverI was keen to read Melanie Myers’ debut novel, Meet me at Lennon’s, because it is set during the Brisbane of my mother’s early teens, that is, wartime Brisbane when her school, Somerville House, was commandeered in 1942 by the Australian Military Forces and served as a US Army Headquarters for the rest of the war. I grew up knowing this story, so was keen to see what Myers made of it, particularly since not many literary fiction novels, as far as I know, have tackled Brisbane during those times. Ariella van Luyn spends some time there in Treading air (my review) and David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno, which I read a long time ago, covers those years. However, being five years younger than my mum, Malouf was only 11 when the war ended, so his perspective is necessarily different.

Myers’ focus is the lives of women during those strange, heady days when women experienced new freedoms through filling the jobs left by men. Added to this was the excitement and glamour of the American GIs in town resulting in increased socialising at bars, like the titular Lennon’s Hotel, and dance venues, like the Trocadero.

It’s something isn’t it? It’s hard not to get caught up in the fever of having a common purpose. Uniforms everywhere and everyone feeling what they’re doing is important and useful. And the Americans, let’s not forget them. For all their braggadocio, they’ve certainly brought a touch of glamour to our little colonial outpost. (April 1943. p. 233/4)

But it was a dark time too. It was a time of austerity and rationing. There was tension between the Australian men and the Americans whose cashed-up glamour, with their gifts of “nylons” and fur coats, attracted the women. There was racism towards black American soldiers. And there was sexual violence against women. This is the complex world that Myers explores in her historical novel, Meet me at Lennon’s.

However, this novel is not straight historical fiction because Myers has taken the increasingly-common dual narrative approach, alternating between the 1940s and the present, when protagonist Olivia Wells is struggling, not only with her PhD on the life of a now-forgotten feminist author Gloria Graham, but also with her abusive (as it turns out) boyfriend, Sam, and the reappearance of her estranged father. Just like her 1940s counterparts, Olivia meets an American man. The stage is set in chapter 1 …

You might be getting a glimmer now of why Myers chose the dual narrative approach? It serves to compare the lives of women in the 1940s with those of women now, asking us to consider what, if anything, has changed? Myers undertook extensive research into wartime Brisbane, looking particularly at police and newspaper reports of crimes against women, as well as the infamous Battle of Brisbane. She uses this research to create stories of several young women in the 1940s, stories she winds around a plot based on an unsolved crime – the River Girl murder. Through these women we learn, for example, that crimes by Americans were mostly passed to their Military Police and quietly handled, with justice rarely being obtained for the victim. Such was the River Girl’s fate. Can Olivia and her friends solve it now? There is, then, also a mystery at the heart of this novel.

Myers does a lovely job of recreating the times. Her characters not only engaged me, but they felt authentic. There’s sturdy sensible Alice, who, having worked pre-war as a house-maid for rich people, sees the opportunity, now that she’s in a well-paid job, to buy a fur coat, just like her former employer had owned. To her horror, however, she soon realises that fur coats were “the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen ‘favoured'”. There’s Gwendolyn, engaged to the uninspiring Robert, but now having fun, as the much more exciting Dolly, with the “energetic” Corporal Charles Feely. There are several more, including those in the present time. One of the book’s challenges is keeping track of the characters and clocking the clues that might connect them.

Myers plays about a bit with her dual chronologies. Chapter 4, for example, is divided into three sections, September 1942, July 1942, then August 1942. The aim, I assume, is to reduce the focus on plot tensions, by preparing us for characters’ actions and feelings. In September 1942, Alice burns the above-mentioned fur coat she buys in July 1942. She also remembers a violent act by her brother when they are children, which prepares us for meeting him in August. And Chapter 12 is set in 1993, when we meet again, as an older woman, Alice’s friend Val from 1942. It works fine – and indeed meeting the lively Val again in 1993 provides some light relief, while also moving the more serious issues on.

The writing is generally sure and expressive. Myers writes some evocative descriptions, such as “a confident early sun fixed on warming the rest of the day ahead” and “the vaulted plaster ceiling of Reckitt’s blue was badly deteriorated and hadn’t felt the caress of a paintbrush in decades”. However, for me at least, she does overdo the similes. While, individually, most are fresh, they often felt irrelevant and distracting, such as “like a starlet’s eyelids, the brownout covers …”, “unfolding like a crumpled flamingo, Clio …”, and “the details landed like clumps of pelted sand.” Too much, I’m afraid.

Meet me at Lennon’s, which won the Queensland Literary Awards’ Glendower Award for an Emerging Writer in 2018, is a good and meaningful read about a significant and little covered period in Australia’s and Brisbane’s history. Early in the novel, Olivia’s American acquaintance Tobias refers to the racist segregation of black American soldiers during the war years, and sees a wider relevance:

“A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.” (p. 10)

In the end though, it’s the lives of women which are the central concern of this novel. The final chapter commences with a letter written by Rhia (Gloria Graham) in 1975. She admits that she had hoped to “undo” what had been done to Olive, the River Girl. However, she comes to realise that “there are some evils that no art form can make better, fix or even soothe”. Perhaps she’s right, but novels like this can keep the important issues front and centre – and there’s value in that.

Theresa Smith also appreciated this novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelanie Myers
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
265pp.
ISBN: 9780702262616

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2019 11:21 pm

    I like reading books set in my parents’ era too, it helps to fill in the gaps of things they never talked about.

    • December 29, 2019 7:04 am

      It does, doesn’t it, Lisa… Plus that fact that it was an interesting and unusual time too. I can’t imagine anything quite equivalent in our time ie when life was so completely upended.

  2. December 28, 2019 11:30 pm

    Thanks for the mention Sue! I’m glad you didn’t mind this one!

    • December 29, 2019 7:05 am

      Oh it’s more than didn’t mind Theresa! I enjoyed reading it.

      • December 29, 2019 9:58 am

        I enjoy reading Queensland set fiction written by Queensland authors. The atmosphere and setting of this one, along with parallels drawn between then and now, were all well done. I’m looking forward to reading more from Melanie – once it’s written! 😁

  3. Claire Louisa permalink
    December 29, 2019 12:15 am

    I might have to take a look at this one next year. I also hate the overuse of similes, and have noticed it seems to be a bit of a trend.

    • December 29, 2019 7:09 am

      Thanks Claire Louisa. I wondered if it was the mark of a new novelist feeling the writing had the be “creative”. But it’s well worth reading all the same because her evocation of the era is good, and its ideas are relevant.

      • Claire Louisa permalink
        December 29, 2019 1:00 pm

        I will definitely take a look. I do enjoy learning about our history.

  4. December 29, 2019 12:29 am

    Of course young women could always read Come in Spinner and discover what real women were thinking about women’s issues at the time. Yes, I understand the attraction of reading about Lennons, but I find no attraction in tired tropes and young writers who think they’re saying something new.

    • December 29, 2019 7:20 am

      Of course Bill, but the thing about Come in spinner, great as it is, is that it’s Sydney. Brisbane was very different, with 85,000 troops injected into a population of 300,000, and with significant US military headquarters operating from there. Also, I don’t think Cusack and James specifically tackled the violence against women issue. I think there’s value in writing from experience of the time itself of course, but there is also value in looking back with the benefit of hindsight to see some issues that may not have been fully apparent closer to the time.

      • December 29, 2019 8:06 am

        I meant also to say, your mum’s school was taken over as US headquarters and so was dad’s, Melbourne High – for the duration of the Pacific War I thought. MacArthur must have moved north at some stage.

        • December 29, 2019 9:20 am

          Interesting Bill. Sounds like Melbourne High was returned to the school in 1944 (according to the School’s history, which just says it was requisitioned by the RAN but not how it was used by them). Somerville House was well occupied by then too, but not returned to them until after the war. It was requisitioned by the AMF in July 1942, but pretty soon I think used by the US for its “Base Section Three Headquarters”.

          If you look at the internet, the US had camps and headquarters all over Australia. MacArthur’s GHQ was originally in Melbourne (in a building in the city), but moved to Brisbane (the AMP Building) in July 1942, according to Wikipedia quoting Paul Rogers’ The Good Years: MacArthur and Sutherland.

  5. December 29, 2019 8:56 am

    It s a joy to find a book set in a time and place you recognise. I would love to find fiction that reflected some of my parent’s stories too. Patrick White’s Tree of Life gave me the feeling of reading about my grandparent’s time and the issues they faced.

    • December 29, 2019 9:22 am

      Thanks Rose. It is. I lived in Brisbane, from 5 to 11 years old, and places relevant to this history – Cloudland Ballroom where big dances were held for example – were part of the stories of my growing up. Interesting what you take in as a child.

      How great that White’s Tree of life resonates with you like that!

  6. December 29, 2019 11:22 am

    Lots of interesting things about this post. Reading about the place and time that our parents came from is very fulfilling. I wax just looking over some things that my father wrote in 1943.

    The duel narrative thing is very trendy these days. I think that it can work very well.

    War is a terrible thing in most ways. However, it is a common trend, that cuts across centuries, that women found a degree of freedom and empowerment.

    • December 29, 2019 11:42 am

      Great points Brian, thanks. What did your father write? Letters, diaries, or published writings?

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