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.
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)