Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

Many Australians and naval historians know of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of HMAS Sydney during World War II and the discovery of its wreckage which made headline news in 2008.

In her debut novel, Lisa Bigelow draws on her family's history to tell the story of Mae, the wife of a naval engineer aboard the HMAS Sydney, and Grace, an aspiring female reporter whose boyfriend is posted to Singapore to cover the war there.


Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a

dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry's ship is missing.

Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.

Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae's neighbour and Grace's boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae's life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.

Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.

My Thoughts

Mae is married to naval engineer, Harry, who was onboard the HMAS Sydney when it disappeared without a trace off the West Australian coast, after engaging with the German cruiser, Kormoran. Survivors from the Kormoran are found, but none from HMAS Sydney, sparking rumours that the ship has been towed to Singapore and the crew are now prisoners of the Japanese. Wracked by guilt at how they parted on Harry's last leave, Mae cannot accept that he won't be coming home. When others are resigned to their loved ones' fates, she still believes that after the war Harry will return to her and their child, and their lives will go on as planned.

Grace aspires to be a newspaper reporter in defiance of her father. She leaves her home town of Benalla, in country Victoria, for Melbourne where she finds work as a secretary to Sam Barton, the editor of the afternoon daily paper The Tribune. Here she meets Phil Taylor, but their relationship is cut short when he is sent to cover the war effort in Singapore just before it falls to the Japanese.

Supported by family and friends, both Mae and Grace await news of their loved ones. Mae focuses on rearing her daughter and is sure she can "will" Harry home. However, the reader knows that Harry is not coming back. Mae, battling against what her family and friends believe, convinced that Harry will return is very sad. It is even sadder when Mae finally acknowledges that Harry is gone forever. Grace's situation is just as sad. Even though she has her work to sustain her as more reporting opportunities come her way, she still suffers from the agony of not knowing. But in her case there is hope that Phil has survived.

While Mae and Grace are the two main protaganists, I must mention a minor character, the pragmatic Alice Gower, who also lost her husband, Jim, when the HMAS Sydney went down. With three children to raise and a farm to run, Alice considers re-marrying. Mae is horrified, but it is Alice's outlook on life that finally gets through to Mae and helps her come to terms with Harry's loss.

I enjoy reading about Melbourne during the 1940s. Many of the places mentioned are well known to me. The railway journey from the city to Williamstown brought back memories of daily commutes when I worked in Melbourne. I also experienced a frisson of excitement when the action moved to Willaura, a small country town in south-western Victoria. The train no longer runs here, but the heritage railway station has recently been restored for use by the community. The Grampians, a spectacular mountain range and tourist area, less than an hours drive from me, was also mentioned. All these references to locations I know made it very easy to visualise the characters in their surroundings and brought the story to life even more.

I'm always thrilled by novels depicting life in Australia during the war years, especially those dealing with the civilian population as opposed to those in the Services. This one hit the mark for me and I can't wait to see what Lisa Bigelow writes next. We That Are Left is an excellent debut novel and one I'm sure will appeal to those interested in Australia's war time past.

I won a copy of this book thanks to a Goodreads Giveaway. Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.

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