I 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.
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
(Review copy courtesy UQP)