In her novel The Passengers (Allen & Unwin Books 2018), Eleanor Limprecht uses the historical inspiration of the war brides of the 1940’s to deftly weave a tale of two women, both struggling in different ways with their past actions and their sense of identity.
Moving between the present and the past, the narrative takes us on two sea journeys across the world, seventy years apart. Sarah and her granddaughter Hannah are sailing from San Diego in California to Sydney, Australia, a country Sarah hasn’t seen since she left for the United States in 1945 on the USS Mariposa. Married young, and in the midst of conflict, Sarah travelled to join her American husband, never imagining the years that would pass before she ventured Home, or the secrets and lies she would keep close to avoid hurting her family. Hannah has her own demons – she lists and categorises every calorie she consumes, and she controls her body and her emotions by what she puts in her mouth. She embarks on the voyage for the sake of her grandmother, but comes to realise much about herself.
The US Government paid for thousands of war brides and their children to relocate from Australia and other countries to America, the women arriving en masse like a load of chattel or possessions. The uncertainty about their new country, and even doubts about the men they had married, left them ill-prepared for their new lives.
We meet Sarah as a young farm girl and grow with her through her adolescent years and into young adulthood. We travel with her to the small country town of Roanoke, USA, where she attempts to live out her fantasy of a happy marriage. And we grieve with her through the losses of war and the collapse of some of her most important dreams.
Hannah is also searching for love and for a sense of who she is and what she might become. During the (contemporary) journey south with Sarah, she comes to understand more about her grandmother and the life she has led, the sacrifices and choices she has made. She realises what her grandmother gave up, and what she gained, by being brave and resilient and determined. And she understands that she must also embrace these qualities, if she is to achieve her potential and overcome the challenges that she faces.
As with a number of books I’ve read recently, The Passengers introduces us to strong female characters who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles around family, career, love, children (and housework). Expectations around responsibilities that seem destined to tie them forever to a certain path. But these characters persist, doggedly, to push against those expectations, and to make their own choices – decisions of self-education and formal studies and the kind of work they are able to undertake; choices about who they will love, and how, and when; and most of all, the journey of their own self-discovery, about what they need and what they want, and the steps they will take to get it.
The structure of this novel connects the past to the now with a mirror reflection: the knowledge that while there is a world of difference between World War Two and now, and between the continents of Australia and North America, the similarity of emotions, hopes and dreams links us with those who have gone before. We realise that we have much more in common than what sets us apart.