Author Kayte Nunn is adept at telling stories that are highly readable while highlighting a specific time or fact of history. Her latest novel The Last Reunion (Hachette 2021) focuses on a little-known historical detail – the women who served in Burma in World War Two operating a mobile canteen for the men fighting at the front. I knew nothing about this before I read this book and Nunn made the entire period come alive. She combines this with a mystery about a lost Japanese artefact, a museum heist and contemporary art dealers to tell a story that is poignant, fast-pasted, heart-breaking and adventurous.
Told in three timelines, the tale opens with a scene from Oxford in 1976 when a woman steals several rare Japanese carvings, including the famed fox-girl, and then disappears. The small, exquisite carvings are never seen again. The two main timelines are set in 1945, when Bea, Plum, Bubbles and Joy enthusiastically join the Fourteenth Army in Burma, operating a mobile canteen in the midst of harsh tropical conditions and hostile gunfire, only to have their courage tested and their ideas of war swiftly challenged with a hefty dose of realism. This is a wonderful depiction of female friendship forged by traumatic circumstances. The women are there to serve the men but face quite a few challenges themselves. The other timeline is in London and Galway in 1999, when Olivia, an assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, a now elderly widow, who wishes to sell her Japanese art collection. They travel together to the Irish countryside for a reunion with Beatrix’s friends and colleagues from 50 years earlier, and while both women connect with an unexpected friendship, they must each confront their own demons from the past.
Full of secrets and mystery, adventure and heroism, the trauma of war and the sparks of new love, The Last Reunion is a wonderful depiction of this unique part of the war machine in Burma, peopled with memorable characters and a thrilling storyline.