Eleanor Limprecht, The passengers (#BookReview)

The passengers is Eleanor Limprecht’s third novel, but the second I’ve read, that being Long Bay (my review) based on the life of early twentieth century abortionist Rebecca Sinclair. The passengers is also a work of historical fiction, though not specifically based on one person’s experience. Instead, it’s about the Australian war brides who married American soldiers during World War 2 and followed their husbands to the USA after the war.

It is also somewhat more complex in conception and structure than Long Bay’s simple chronological third person narrative. It is framed around a journey, that of war bride Sarah who, through the course of the novel, travels back to Australia, on a cruise-ship, after a 68-year absence. She is accompanied by her circa twenty-year-old American grand-daughter Hannah, who has anorexia nervosa. The narrative comprises alternating chapters in Sarah and Hannah’s first person voices: Sarah’s is primarily her telling her story to Hannah, while Hannah’s is more her internal reflections on her life and her grandmother’s story.

Now, I’m going to get this voice decision out of the way first, because I found it a bit problematic. In her Acknowledgements, Limprecht thanks some people for helping her to hone her focus, and for showing her “how not to be scared of trying a different structure”. Good for her, I say. There’s nothing wrong with trying a different structure. This alternating-voice one, which is not particularly new or out-there, can be used effectively to throw light on two different perspectives and experiences, which is essentially what it does here, though war bride Sarah’s is the main story being told. Hannah never comes quite as alive as Sarah. She provides neat segues between episodes in Sarah’s story, and creates some parallels in their respective experiences, but she, and her condition, don’t really add significantly to the novel. Given this proviso, however, Limprecht does capture her illness authentically, and doesn’t trivialise it by presenting a simple resolution.

Still, the structure works. My issue is more the first-person voices, particularly Sarah’s storytelling one, because it constrains the narrative to the sorts of things Sarah would tell a grand-daughter. She is surprisingly open about deeply personal things like sex with her husband/s, but this narrative approach reduces the opportunity for deeper, more internal, reflections about the emotional, social, and mental challenges faced by war brides.

But now, that discussed, I’ll get on to all the positive things, because this is an enjoyable read. For a start, Limprecht’s evocation of Sarah’s life in Australia, first on a dairy farm south of Sydney and then in Sydney during the war, beautifully conveys life at that time, and captures the strangeness of those days:

How was anyone to make sense of it? The world was upside down, flipped and spinning backwards–women working men’s jobs, street and railway station signs taken down or covered in case the Japs landed, coupons needed just to buy butter, tea, sugar or meat. … The army and navy requisitioning anything they wanted, anything they needed for war. Japanese subs in Sydney harbour.

When death is close, you have to live.

It’s no wonder, as naval officer Jim says to war bride Sarah now en-route to Virginia, that the war “made us do strange things.” For many young women like Sarah, those strange things included marrying young American men whom they barely knew, and not fully comprehending the post-war implications of these weddings, which was that they would be expected to live in America!

Limprecht clearly did her war-bride research well – and I love that she details it at the end of the novel. It shows in the vivid way she relates the experience of these brides as, accompanied by Red Cross workers, they travelled by boat to America and then by train to their husbands all over the country. This part of the narrative not only felt authentic, but it was also highly engaging. At one point Sara describes herself as “barrelling blindly forwards” with “no idea of what world I would enter.” Brave stuff, really. Sarah’s journey continues after her arrival in Virginia, taking us from her early 20s to the present when she is a widow, and retired vet, in her late 80s.

As you’ll have realised by now, the novel’s unifying theme is the journey – a theme I discussed only recently in my post on Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline. Cassie’s journey was about deciding whether she’d made the right decision to leave Perth when she was around 20. Sarah’s is somewhat more complex. It’s about reconnecting with her past, and about putting right, or resolving, the lies she had told both before and after leaving Australia. There’s a journey for Hannah too. She thinks she is there to help her elderly grandmother, but in fact her grandmother had invited her because she hoped it would help Hannah get well. The relationship between Sarah and Hannah is a lovely part of the novel.

There are also several references in the novel to John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath, which Sarah reads on her train journey across America. Although the Joads’ travels are rather different from Sarah’s, she sees some similarities to her family’s farm struggles in Australia, and she sees value in Tom Joad’s practical philosophy that “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

Overall, then, The passengers is an engaging book about a by-product of war – and the long tail of its aftermath – that has tended to be forgotten in the ongoing focus on men and their experiences. For this, as well as for its lively descriptions of war-time Sydney and of the war brides’ journey by boat to America, I’d recommend it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the war-bride story.

AWW Badge 2018Eleanor Limprecht
The passengers
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
336pp.
ISBN: 9781760631338

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Eleanor Limprecht, Long Bay (Review)

LimprechtLongBaySleepersOne of the things that interests me about historical fiction, of which Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay is an example, is why the author in question chooses to write his/her story as fiction rather than non-fiction. As I’ve written before, this is an issue with which Kate Grenville grappled when she wrote The secret river. That book was initially going to be non-fiction about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman. However, for various reasons which she outlines in Searching for The secret river, the book ended up as fiction. Her reasons included gaps in the historical record, and finding the story – and particularly the voice – within the facts she had. I wondered, as I read Limprecht’s Long Bay, what her reasons were.

Long Bay, which draws its name from Sydney’s Long Bay Gaol, tells the story of Rebecca Sinclair, a young woman who in 1909, at the age of 23, was gaoled for manslaughter after a botched abortion. Limprecht describes on her website how she came to write the story: she was hunting for first person stories from the gaol when she came across two letters about Sinclair from the Prison Comptroller. Both those letters are reproduced in the book. Limprecht writes that she became obsessed with Rebecca Sinclair’s life, and started seeking out her story:

I found out everything I could and then began looking for living relatives in the hope they could tell me more. I joined an online genealogy site and made contact with a woman who had Rebecca on her family tree … she was Rebecca’s granddaughter.

Not only, it turned out, was she Rebecca’s grand-daughter, but the daughter of the baby Rebecca had had in goal. That baby, Freda, never did tell her daughter where she was born and why. Grand-daughter Christine

said that she wanted to honour her mother, who never felt she could share the story of her birth with anyone. She gave me permission to use her grandmother’s name and story for the novel, Long Bay.

Limprecht doesn’t specifically discuss why she chose to tell this story as fiction. Most likely it’s because she’s a fiction writer. Duh! (She does say on her site that Rebecca’s “story told me to look deeper, to understand bad choices, and to see beyond the razor wire, to the messy, real truth that fiction can reveal”.) But it may also be because, while there are several official records relating to Rebecca, there are major gaps in the record of her life. The lives of poor people, Limprecht implies, are not well documented. At the back of the novel, Limprecht notes the specific sources she quotes in the novel, but she does not, as some historical fiction authors do, discuss the historical basis of her story in any other detail – such as how much she has assumed, and how much she is confident of as “fact”. I’m interested in this, though it’s certainly not critical to analysis of the book as a piece of fiction.

So let’s get to the fiction! Limprecht tells the story straightforwardly. She starts with the letter – the one which inspired her story – from the Prison Comptroller to the Royal Hospital for Women advising of the arrangements for admitting Rebecca Sinclair. This is followed by a Prologue describing Rebecca’s admission and taking us to the beginning of labour. The novel then flashes back to her childhood (Chapter 1) and her story is told chronologically from this point.

Limprecht carefully sets up Rebecca’s character as a hard-working young woman who has a pretty good head and can be resourceful, but who in youthful naiveté let herself be taken in by Donald Sinclair, the only son of Nurse Sinclair, an abortionist, and a man who is, let us say, “an operator”. While there does seem to be love between them, Rebecca also slowly becomes aware that he is not to be trusted. Limprecht sets up a motive, to do with her sexuality, for Rebecca’s early willingness to accept Sinclair’s attentions. To modern minds, it could seem a little unrealistic but for the time it’s probably valid enough.

Rebecca is presented as responsible, and having integrity. As she imagines her trial, she realises that her

family will sit in that courtroom and watch her be led up into the cage. They will listen to all of the horrible things she has done. She did them with Don, for Don, but he did not force her hand.

I liked that self-awareness – though it’s true that her options if she did not go along with the plan, like those of poor women of her time, were few. I was intrigued to read in a contemporary newspaper report in Trove that she “caused a painful scene when she was sentenced. She sobbed and clung to her husband, the other prisoner, and appealed piteously to the court not to separate her from him.” Without giving too much away, this is not quite the Rebecca depicted by Limprecht, but perhaps her court-side Rebecca is drawn from what she knows was the trajectory of Rebecca’s life after her release.

Overall, while I enjoyed reading Rebecca’s story, she didn’t fully come alive for me – and I think back to Grenville’s challenge with her novel, that of finding the story, the voice, within the facts she had. I wonder whether having the permission of the family to tell this story hampered Limprecht in some way. Did she feel a little constrained to be sympathetic to Rebecca? Grenville decided to break free of her “real” subject and invent a character based on him. Not all historical fiction writers do this of course – Hilary Mantel didn’t for Wolf Hall (my review) and neither did Hannah Kent for Burial rites (my review) – but in this case, it may have freed Limprecht to fly a little more with the character, to have been, perhaps, a little less laboured about justifying her actions and decisions.

Nonetheless, the novel does make excellent reading. The plotting is confident and coherent, with the ground carefully laid for the “crisis” point. There’s some lovely imagery. Here, for example, is Rebecca feeling shame:

Like a hem on a dress that is too long, it drags behind her, gathering dirt, there for everyone to see.

And Limprecht’s description of turn of the century Sydney, and of the lives of poor women in particular, feels authentic. Rebecca’s mother, with six children, falls on hard times when her husband dies. She makes her money as a seamstress, which is a skill Rebecca learns. Her other daughters find different paths in life – one respectable, another not so. Limprecht is careful not to moralise on the abortion issue, preferring to show, rather than exhort. Nurse Sinclair is clear and unsentimental about why she does what she does – women need the service and they need it done safely, and she needs an income (“a trade that turns a pretty profit”). Rebecca sees the sorts of women coming through – servant women abused by their master, poor women with too many children, unmarried women. A prison guard shows rare kindness because she understands the issues.

Rebecca Sinclair’s story is a fascinating one. Notwithstanding my little equivocation, Limprecht has done it justice and brought to our modern times the story of a woman whose story is worth telling. A perfect one for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

awwchallenge2015Eleanor Limprecht
Long Bay
Collingwood: Sleepers, 2015
313pp
ISBN: 9780987507044

(Review copy supplied by Sleepers Publishing)