Taking A Chance
Pan Macmillan AUS
Read from my local library
It is 1943 in Perth, Australia and Eleanor “Nell” Fitzgerald is a journalist, working for a local rag. She primarily writes the women’s page, providing helpful fashion advice and frugal ways to repurpose old hats in this time of rationing, where money for luxuries is almost non-existent. She plans to marry her lawyer boyfriend as soon as he returns from service, but then everything changes.
The court reporter for her paper is away and her boss sends her on the final day to hear a verdict of guilty and sentence to hang passed down to Lena Mitrovic who is believed to have murdered her lover by way of rat poison. After the conclusion, Nell meets Johnny Horvath, an American war correspondent. Johnny is handsome, charming, smart and believes that all might not be as it seems with this case. He wants Nell to help him investigate and help him get Lena out of the hellhole that is Fremantle Gaol.
Working with Johnny could give Nell the boost she needs to be able to break into features writing. The more they dig around the more they uncover about the less savoury side of wartime Perth – there are some unscrupulous American soldiers preying on teenage girls, plying them with food and alcohol to get what they want, girls running away from home, drawn by the talk of the soldiers and the gifts they bestow, countless girls marrying Americans they’ve known only mere weeks, some situations ending up in the divorce court. And they are chipping away at the story that Lena murdered her lover in cold blood too.
Nell finds herself torn between the choice she has made to marry a good, safe, solid and honest man and the passion and heady feelings she knows that she would be able to experience with Johnny. Security is important to Nell and she finds herself mystified by the Australian girls that are marrying the American servicemen after knowing them mere weeks. She doesn’t understand how they can throw caution to the wind like that, marry someone they barely know and think that it will work out later. Does she have the courage to be reckless and take a chance on the handsome American? Or will she let something exciting slip by?
I recently read Deborah Burrows’ first novel, A Stranger In My Street and immediately requested her second novel, also set in Perth around a similar time, from the library. This one introduces us to 24 year old Nell, an Irish orphan who was taken in as a child by her uncle, who had migrated to Australia, his wife and their rowdy pack of children. Nell was given the opportunity to stay and finish school, almost unheard of for women at the time during the tail end of the Depression and she also went to University as well. She now writes for a weekly doing the women’s page and although this is a good, secure job that pays enough to help her aunt, it’s not particularly challenging and sometimes, Nell just wants more.
When she meets Johnny, the sparks fly between them immediately, despite Nell’s sort of (unofficial) engagement to local lawyer Rob who is serving in the war effort. He’s been in Guinea and now he’s in Melbourne and they communicate via very formulaic letters. Nell knows that although her aunt likes Rob, she doesn’t really approve of the match – Rob is not a Catholic and her aunt just doesn’t think he’s the man for her, perfectly lovely though he may be. When Nell brings Johnny home, she sees the way her aunt lights up and knows that she’s going to have a hard time convincing her that nothing is going on. It seems like everyone thinks that there’s something going on between her and Johnny and either they’re encouraging it, like her aunt or trying to warn her off with stories of what a playboy he is.
Nell has also found herself the surprise guardian of a teenage girl named Evie, who she “rescues” from some American soldiers who were most likely going to take advantage of the intoxicated girl. Evie is a challenge – at almost 15, she’s still a child in the ways of the world but she wants to grow up too fast. She’s stunningly beautiful and isn’t above using that to attempt to get what she wants. Flirting has become second nature to her and sulking has as well. I have to admit, at times the character of Evie irritated me. On one hand I did feel sorry for her, she was an orphan for all means really with very few prospects. But some of the choices Evie made were just not good and she often shows a lack of gratitude to Nell for essentially hauling her out of potentially ending up incarcerated. Nell also has to let go the idea of parenting Evie, who doesn’t need a mother, and just be a friend but sometimes I didn’t blame Nell for her frustration. I did really like the bond that developed between Evie and Nell’s aunt, who proved that you can ‘parent’ for lack of a better word, effectively without smothering.
The chemistry between Nell and Johnny is very appealing and the fact that we never see the mysterious semi-fiancé in Melbourne makes it easy to forget his very existence. To be honest I didn’t find the search for the real killer all that interesting but I did enjoy the descriptions of life in Fremantle Gaol and also Nell’s attempt to document the lost girls, young teens who run away to Perth for a better life and find nothing of the sort as well as her fascination with the girls who have the courage to throw caution to the wind and marry someone they barely know.
Taking A Chance is a very enjoyable book, giving me a further taste of Perth in the war time that I came to love when I read A Stranger On My Street. I hope that Deborah Burrows has plenty more stories set here to enjoy in the future.
Book # 156 of 2013
Taking A Chance is the 66th novel read and reviewed for my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013