All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2021, 364p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley/personal purchased paperback copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve’s party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.

Can’t believe it took me so long to read this! I had an eBook review copy but I own the rest of Kayte Nunn’s books in paperback so I had to buy one to match them and it’s sat on my shelf for a couple of months. I’m trying to read from that shelf every so often, trying to balance out my reading a bit.

Anyway this is mostly a dual timeline, taking place partially in 1945 and partially in 1999 with a small scene from 1976. In 1945, it details the story of Bea and a bunch of other women who join the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) known as the Wasbies. They run a sort of canteen where the men can get sandwiches, cakes, treats and tea as well as purchase little luxuries like cigarettes, razors, creams, soaps etc. They’re imperative for boosting the morale of the men and the women also provide a social aspect, attending dances and being friendly faces. The women become very close as they get closer and closer to the front lines and see and experience things that will change them forever. Most are from privileged backgrounds, some have husbands or brothers serving in the war.

In 1999, Aussie ex-pat Olivia is working as an intern for an art dealer and she goes to meet Beatrix for her boss, because the elderly widow has indicated she has something very valuable to sell. A freak snowstorm and an illness traps Olivia in the country with Bea, which leads to her hearing a lot of Bea’s story and attending a reunion of the Wasbies, where many things come to light. And Olivia will make choices about her own future as well, inspired by the somewhat crotchety old lady she’s come to admire.

I found this book so fascinating. The opening scene is intrigue and then both timelines are so equally interesting. I loved reading about Bea signing up for the Wasbies, wanting to contribute, meeting the other women and them forming bonds. There’s plenty of description of their duties as well as the conditions of their surroundings and also the local area – the oppressive heat, the insects, etc as well as the other challenges. It really gives you a clear picture of what it must’ve been like to be involved in the war this way, from the long days preparing and serving often hundreds of men, to the jungle setting. I don’t know much about Burma (which is now known as Myanmar) – it’s pretty limited to the invasion by Japan in WWII, which tore the country apart and the Burma Railway, which was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of Allied war prisoners. It was interesting to see it from a different perspective, not of a prisoner but from someone who was working in a different role, providing comfort and support in the best way they could, to fighting troops. They’re all women that volunteered, some of them giving up quite comfortable lives well away from war zones, in order to help and do their part, to try and give the men a bit of cheer and comfort in what were incredibly horrible times.

In 1999, Olivia is lonely in London, she’s been working non-stop in an industry where it’s hard to get a good position and there’s a lot of competition. Her boss is demanding and thinks nothing of sending her on a trek to visit Beatrix a couple days before Christmas. By now Bea is in her 70s, living alone in a crumbling pile and she desperately needs money to fix the roof, which is why she’s considering selling something that means the world to her. She’s equal parts brusque and caring, tender and abrupt and it’s clear to Olivia she has a lot of stories to tell, which Olivia would love to hear. Especially about her time with the Wasbies and the other women. Olivia gets a chance to meet those remaining from the group and even more chance to understand what sort of things they experienced back in Burma, where some of the dangers weren’t from the local surroundings at all.

I really enjoyed the friendship that built between Olivia and Bea, built in such a short time but with such genuine warmth and feeling. Olivia hasn’t really made any connections since she moved to London from Australia but in meeting Bea, it gives her opportunity to make several different ones, some of which give her personal happiness and others which give her the courage to make decisions to further her career.

And the ending? So wonderfully satisfying.

9/10

Book #93 of 2021

The Last Reunion is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021 and is the 18th book completed.

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