Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2017

Who We Were, by Lucy Neave

Who We Were is a debut novel from Lucy Neave, now a teacher of creative writing at ANU but formerly a participant in a leadership program for veterinary students in the US.  A tour of the US Army Medical Research Institute in Infectious Diseases in Maryland was the catalyst for this book…

If your antennae are on alert at the mention of an army’s research institute in infectious diseases, you are on the right track.  Set mostly during the Cold War, this novel is very disconcerting because it shows how naïve people can get mixed up in morally questionable situations, and how love makes us blind.

The story begins in Melbourne, where Annabel has ambitions to be a research scientist.  It’s 1938 and WW2 is imminent but Annabel is bored by politics and Adolf Hitler, thankfully, is a million miles away.  While she waits to see if she has won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, she meets Bill Whitton and falls head over heels in love with him.  In one of those strange quirks of fate caused by war, the enlistment of men like Bill saves her from an impulsive marriage and she completes her degree, winning the University Medal because, as she self-deprecatingly tells Bill after he returns, ‘The men were gone.’

The Bill Whitton who returns from years as a POW in Thailand is not the same man as he was:

One day in October 1945, I stepped into a teashop on Swanston Street in the middle of Melbourne.  Sitting near a tall window was a man who looked like Bill Whitton.  He was ten feet away.  He sat at an angle to the entrance so that I saw his profile: his long nose, the blade of his cheekbone, his angular chin.  The man was bent forward over the table, reading.  He wore wire-framed glasses.  Although I couldn’t believe that he was Bill, I was drawn to this person, whoever he was.  As the door closed behind me, the bell rang and the man glanced up at me.  I saw his mouth open and his hands fall to his sides.

He pushed himself from his seat.  He was Bill Whitton; there was no question.  By then I was right up close to him.  I shut my eyes and slid my arms around his waist and pressed my face against his torso.  He drew me so close that I could hardly breathe.  Somehow, we let each other go; he pulled out a chair for me and we sat down.  We had to touch; we had to keep touching.  He took my hands and held them. His palms were covered in rough patches.  His face had changed too.  It was bones and skin, with little flesh to spare.  There was a scar at his hairline, and I reached forward and touched it.  He placed his fingers over mine. (p.36)

The changes are not merely physical, but psychological too. Always a reticent man anyway, Bill is now closed in, wary, wanting to retrieve the innocence of their former escapades in the bush.  At the same time he is driven by a sense of urgency about wanting to finish his PhD, and opportunities in the US beckon because they are both estranged from their families (because of an overnight escapade resulting in damage to Bill’s father’s ute and to Annabel’s reputation).  Bill has a job lined up in a research institute, and she gets one soon too, though the text makes it clear in subtle and historically authentic ways that Annabel always has to prove herself because of her gender.

The text shifts a gear when the couple start work.  Gradually Annabel discovers the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and how that impacts on their friendships and even their choice of place to live.  Through the fog of her passion for Bill, she begins to discern the focus of the research they are doing, and she also begins to resent the way Bill expects her to trust him implicitly when she tries to question some of his clandestine activities.  While not a thriller in the sense of the Gold Capital Letters on the Cover genre, Who We Were becomes a gripping novel generating a sense of unease that, ominously, still seems relevant to our time.

Amongst other things, what I admired about this book was its Australianness.  This author knows Melbourne well, she writes evocatively about Lake George near Canberra, and in the US scenes, she captures the sense of a woman negotiating her way socially and professionally in a new country.  Her writing is exquisite – textured and spare, painting vivid scenes that linger in the mind.  This is a scene on the way to Orbost in Victoria, where the couple are, I think, at Deadcock Den, in the same area as the Den of Nargun.  Bill talks about wanting to leave Australia, but then gestures to the scrub, granite, a blue sky, torn between his dreams of Cambridge and the feeling that being on the top of a hill that makes [him] feel free.

Deadcock Den (Public domain, Wikipedia Commons)

We were staring at each other: it was too much.  I’d gone quivery and strange. I shifted my gaze.  Behind him there was a dead tree in amongst some saplings.  It held the biggest nest I’d ever seen –  sticks and branches, woven together into a rough basket, jammed between a wide branch and the trunk.  It was immoveable and ancient.  I placed my hands flat against a larger boulder.  Without speaking, Bill gave me a leg up onto the top of the highest rock, and I pulled myself up, grazing my stomach.  From there, if I stood on tiptoe, I could look along the branch to where it met the trunk.  Deep inside the nest were two eggs, white with rusty spots.  They looked as if they had just been laid, and they also looked as if they had endured centuries.  (p.11)

I don’t know how this book escaped my attention when it was first released.  I’m glad I found it now.  Bookgroups would enjoy this too.

Author: Lucy Neave
Title: Who We Were
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079527
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Who We Were


Responses

  1. Who We Were sounds like a fascinating book, I am not sure if it is completely up my alley but my interest is piqued. Thank you for the review, I will look into trying to get a copy.

    • Hi Michael, I wasn’t sure that it was going to be my kind of book either, but as you can tell from my review, it was worth ‘taking a punt’ on it!

  2. Woops! You might want to change the reference on the Deadcok Den picture to ‘Public’ domain. Sounds like a good read, shall chase it up.

    • *gasp* So much for spell check, eh? Thank you!
      It’s my ‘l’ on the keyboard, there’s something stuck under it (*chuckle* probably a biscuit crumb) and unless I remember to press really hard, my ‘l’ goes missing.

  3. This sounds so interesting, and as it’s published by Text may even be available in the UK.

    • It’s kind of creepy, but in a good way…

  4. Sounds excellent, and since it’s published by Text, the book may make its way here.


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