The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman

The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman is a wonderful and heart-warming read that sheds a bright light on pre and post-WWII Australia, Sydney specifically, focusing on often overlooked women’s experiences. The main character, Tilly, initially secretary to the editors of Sydney’s most popular broadsheet, the Daily Herald, finds the call of war changes everything. Like many women of the time, the absence of men who have left to fight, catapults her into a role usually reserved for males: in this instance, war correspondent. 

Unlike male reporters who are jettisoned into war zones or embedded with the troops (and I loved that genuine war correspondents of the era such as George Johnston are mentioned), Tilly’s reporting doesn’t mean travel, but it does mean covering the impact of war and loss of men – their absence – on domestic life. Determined to do her best, Tilly writes from the heart and with unerring accuracy, all the time noting the social, psychological, economic and other changes war brings about, not only on others, but her own life. As the wife of a PoW, Tilly is all too aware of the hefty cost of battle on everyone. Forced to deal with entrenched sexism, misogyny and all the other negative assumptions her remaining male co-workers and other men she encounters particularly make about women, Tilly and her peers continuously prove they’re simply doing what they’ve always been a capable of but were never given the opportunity. The age-old maxim. 

But it’s not only Tilly’s work and observations on life the book explores, but what those left behind do to help the war effort and acknowledge the sacrifices being made – from the amazing land army of women, to those who go above and beyond to send care packages, knit, sew, cook, learn trades and professions previously denied to them and generally step up and deny themselves so much to ensure the country runs smoothly and safely. That the men abroad, risking their lives and souls, know thy matter. It also deals with the constant fear and lack of accurate communication about what’s happening has on those left at home, the damage the spread of propaganda causes as well. And the book doesn’t steer away from exposing grubby politics and the way in which trade unions and dockers particularly were demonized for political gain.

When the war ends and Tilly’s  best friend and housemate welcomes her husband home as the country celebrates victory and returning soldiers, Tilly is forced to reconcile what this means to her personally, professionally, emotionally, and what it signifies for women and the rights they worked so hard to earn. The trauma of war, of loss (and not just human lives), and return to “normality’ for the repatriated soldiers and their families as well as everyone else effected, is sensitively and heart-wrenchingly dealt with.

Overall, this impeccably researched book was a fabulous, thought-provoking and not always easy read (and I mean that in the best of ways as it challenges popular myths and misconceptions) that is both utterly heart-warming and authentic. 
Loved it.

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City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

This wonderful book had been sitting on my TBR pile for far too long. My only regret in finally picking it up and devouring it, is that now it’s read, I can no longer be delighted and astonished by the marvellous world of young, unambitious but adventurous Vivian Morris in New York in the 1940s.

When nineteen-year-old Vivian is sent to join her avant-garde, Aunt Peg, in the city that never sleeps, she becomes seamstress to the cast of the Lily Playhouse, assembling ad hoc costumes for their cheap and cheerful shows. Finally, Vivian feels she’s found her place in the world, drinking, partying and befriending the glamorous and utterly gorgeous showgirl, Celia.

But when the grand British actress, Edna Watson, and her himbo husband arrive from Britain, essentially, refugees from the war, they bring in their wake a certain magic that enchants all those in their orbit. Keen to take advantage of the star’s presence, the Lily Playhouse seriously invests in Edna and puts on a grand play, The City of Girls. With a hit on their hands, everything changes, especially for Vivian who finds herself cast in a role she was never born to play.

Told as a letter written by an ageing Vivian looking back on her life, to someone called “Angela”, the voice of this novel is utterly compelling. Vivid, able to call out her own flaws, own her mistakes and be generous towards others, as Vivian’s story unfolds, it’s not only the tale of one woman’s journey towards independence and self-awareness, but a world’s awakening after the horrors of war and the impact it has had on individuals, families, and society. In some ways, Vivian and certainly her Aunt Peg, are women out of time, but in others, they represent what women throughout the ages have longed for – respect, an authentic voice and autonomy. Not to be judged by a set of arbitrary and ever-shifting criteria that’s both reductive and self-defeating. In so many ways, this story about women from decades past speaks to us in the here and now as well.

A beautiful, lyrical story that lingers in the heart and head long after the last page is turned.  

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Immigrants and Spies: My father, my memories by Barbara Mackay-Cruise

This beautifully written book, Immigrants and Spies: My Father, my memories, tells the story of a remarkable man, Noel W. Lamidey, who not only headed up one of Australia’s first immigration schemes after the WWII, but his role in the formation of ASIO as well. Told through the eyes of his youngest daughter, Barbara or Boo, it’s also the story of Australia post-World War One and Two and the role mainly white immigrants from the British colonies played in shaping what we are today.

Starting in the 1930s in Canberra, before seguing back in time and moving forward again (and taking us from England to Tasmania, Melbourne and the nation’s capital), this memoir also takes the reader on a journey through the post-Federation Australia, the Depression and then onto London and Europe and its rebuilding after the horrors of the Second World War.

While I loved reading about Barbara’s idyllic Australian childhood, her memories of school the neighbourhood, the apparent simplicity of life in then agrarian Canberra, and the loving close-knit family of which she was a part, the food they ate, the hobbies she engaged in, as well as meeting characters from Australia’s political and cultural history, I found the parts set in London and the politicking behind funding and organising the mass immigration (of almost all white folk) – and too many young children – to Australian shores from Britain and other colonial outposts, not only riveting, but relevant to today as well.

There’s no doubt, despite battling contrary personalities of different political persuasion, Noel Lamidey was a man with compassion and keen to do his job well. Certainly, from his daughter’s perspective and what his letters (parts of which are reprinted in the book) indicate, he was a man with a great deal of humanity who didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of displaced, broken, fearful people as a problem so much as a great potential which Australia could mutually benefit from.

Experiencing and witnessing first-hand the devastation of returning soldiers (British) who found the promised welcome and new life back “home” a shibboleth, seeing the terrible misery of the survivors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, Lamidey knew Australia was a solution. The only problem was, that while the English and Australian press basically produced propaganda to keep migrants keen and willing to uproot themselves for the promise of a new and better life, the reality was often very different.

Italian immigrants arriving by ship

Not only were the waves of migrants from the northern hemisphere unable to be accommodated in adequate housing in Australia, instead being put in internment camps where they were segregated by sex – including established families, but they were often met with contempt by Australians who feared their jobs would be taken. Rather than being regarded as “New Australians”, these migrants were quickly reminded they were “wogs, dagos, huns and pommy bastards” and made to feel unwelcome. Not by all, but enough for many to give up after a short time and return home. Not surprising when the promised housing was a freezing or boiling hut enclosed behind wire and shared with other men or women and you couldn’t see your loved ones. Sympathy was in short supply for those who “gave up” or complained and they were swiftly referred to as “whinging poms.”

Distressed by this situation, Lamidey would lament if only those so far away could see the conditions these immigrants had survived and wished to escape – then maybe, just maybe, compassion would be offered instead of name-calling; understanding that they felt let down instead of assuming ingratitude.

Despite all this, the book is neither sentimental nor judgemental, after all, this is, as the subtitle suggests, one woman’s memories – about her father, about life throughout these turbulent, remarkable years where, because of immigrants, the face of Australia would be forever changed and for the better. It might be easy to read this and feel uncomfortable with how obviously racially and culturally biased the immigration scheme was – but that was a fact – one upheld by the “White Australia policy” which wasn’t disbanded until the 1970s. But we mustn’t shy away from what was a part of our history, even if it was colour-blind.

As I read, I couldn’t help but compare much of what unfolded with what is happening today as our world is once again being torn apart by war – affecting people deeply and tragically; displacing them, rendering them not only homeless, but nation-less as well. And what do we do?

In one of his unpublished books held in the national archives, Aliens Control in Australia, and from which Barbara quotes, Lamidey makes this observation: “When passions are let loose by war it happens all too often that foreigners whether or not of enemy origin, and even locally born persons bearing foreign names, become the object of denunciation and persecution.”

He could have been writing about today.  Plus ca?change

Noel Lamiday and his wife, Lillian

Exploring a particular slice of history and from an unapologetically narrow perspective, this is a fascinating and gorgeously told story that I couldn’t put down. The last ten pages are interviews with a few prominent Australian immigrants and their stories – and they resonated.

Like many people, I too come from an immigrant family – one side of my family escaped the Holocaust (and later, my mother came from Israel to start a new life here and give us one), and my other side came out from Ireland and Scotland. Likewise, Lamidey brought his new wife to Australia from England after serving in WWI, raising his family here before taking them to England as work dictated. His efforts and contributions, coloured by his mainly positive experiences as a migrant, made him determined to offer the same to others. Not always successful, he never stopped trying.

A terrific and, in the end, very positive book that will appeal to those interested in Australian and British history, politics, enjoy a well-written memoir, or just want to learn what it might have been like for their ancestors – the machinations behind their relatives/family’s decision to cross to the other side of the world.

There’s no doubt, Lamidey was a champion in his daughter’s eyes and, I suspect, he will be in many others’ as well.

 

 

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The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridasson

This was a wonderful, slow-burner of a book that segues between war-time Reykjavik in 1944 and the present. In 1944, a policeman named Flovent, an Icelandic expatriate named Thorson who is seconded to the military police, try to solve the brutal murder of a beautiful young Icelandic woman outside the national theatre. Initially suspecting the influx of US soldiers and the way they captivate the local girls who take unseemly risks to be responsible, they soon find they need to look closer to home.

Back in the present a retired detective, Konrad is asked to investigate the death of an elderly man who is found dead in his apartment. When a post-mortem reveals his death is, in fact, murder, Konrad cannot fathom who would want to kill this inoffensive, quiet man. It’s not until Konrad starts delving into his past and discovers he was not only a military policeman, but part of an inquiry into the terrible murder of a young woman during the war,  that Konrad understands the two cases, even though they’re separated by decades, might be connected.

While back in 1944 a perpetrator was taken into custody, tragic events followed his arrest. Evidently, these continued to haunt the now dead old man and thus, they haunt Konrad as well. Moreso when he discovers his own tenuous connection to the case.

It’s now up to Konrad to pick up where the old man left off and see if he can finally lay the ghosts that disturbed him to rest.

Atmospheric, very character driven, the intertwining of past and present works so well, weaving threads into a tight-knit solution.

There are some outstanding Scandi-noir writers and stories out there, and I am delighted to have found another to add to my reading pleasures!

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