Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Early 2021 has seen several books published which highlight women who went to war. The few novels that have come my way are Kirsty Manning’s The French Gift, Jackie French’s Legends of the Lost Lilies, and Kayte Nunn’s The Last Reunion. These authors, at this time, have considered it important to honour the women whose role in the war effort has been largely forgotten.
In Australian author Kayte Nunn’s novel The Last Reunion, she references women who were involved in the Burma Campaign which she refers to as ‘The Forgotten War’. These women were the 250 recruited from England, India and Australia who were often closest to the front line of any servicewomen in the entire war. These were the young women of the Women’s Auxiliary Service – WAS(B).
Kayte Nunn has creatively linked experiences from three different times in history to provide an interesting, informative and beautifully written story. Chapter one covers an incident that took place in Oxford in 1976 – the theft of items from a museum. The following chapters alternate between 1944 in Burma and England in 1999 where Olivia has an internship with Cholmondeleys, a dealer in Asian art. Three days before Christmas, she is sent to the home of Mrs Beatrix Pelham who has made an approach to sell some Netsuke artifacts. Among them is The Fox Girl which, Olivia knows and so does the reader, was stolen from an Oxford museum in 1976. A severe snow storm and a brief illness sees Olivia team up with reclusive, 70 odd year-old Beatrix to attend a New Year Eve’s reunion party in Ireland where secrets long buried will finally be revealed.
“Olivia felt only sadness – sadness that one person’s actions could have had such a damaging effect on another for so many years” (316). The saddest thing was that the perpetrator probably didn’t even remember it (315).
The characterisation in this book is diverse and realistic, humanising what is part of the forgotten horror of the warfare which took place so close to Australia. When Olivia came across the collection of slim leather-bound books and started to read what one of the women had experienced, she “felt as if she had stepped out of her old life and was cocooned in another world altogether” (84). The reader can share this feeling.
The author has created beautiful imagery through exquisite detail, especially those of the beautifully carved netsuke – toggles traditionally used by Japanese men to secure small containers to the sash which was wrapped around their kimonos (14). Humour is also included in this way. I could just imagine the frustration experienced by the sergeant who was tasked with teaching the basics of marching to the newly recruited WAS teams. For him they resembled “a straggling caterpillar with too many legs going in several directions at once” (94). And the image of seventy-year-old women jumping out of a car in the rain to push a van blocking traffic, doing what came so naturally to them fifty years earlier, brought a smile to my face.
The addition of the mystery surrounding the whereabouts and ownership of The Fox Girl adds a level of intrigue to an already interesting tale. This story has honour and dis-honour, the horror of man’s inhumanity during times of conflict, the determination to make the lives of others just that little bit more pleasant, the beautiful friendship between women of differing generations and love. What more could a reader ask for?
It needs to be remembered that this is a book of fiction but comes out of research into the women who were originally recruited as cipherettes (encoders) in Burma in the Second World War but later re-formed to run mobile and static canteens for troops on the front line (365). The writing is so graphic that it sometimes feels as if what has been written really happened. What does shine through clearly is the friendship of this band of “intrepid, adaptable and purposefully cheerful women who simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with it, supporting each other through the worst of times” (367).
This is the third novel I have read by this author, Kayte Nunn, having read The Silk House and The Botanist’s Daughter and I have thoroughly enjoyed each of them.
by Kayte Nunn