Hachette, Australia, 2021
Another fine work of historical fiction by Kayte Nunn, The Last Reunion focusses on the women of the Women’s Auxiliary Services Burma (WASBies). It’s another of the largely untold stories of the contribution of women to the Second World War effort – these plucky women were the closest to the frontline of any servicewomen in this conflict, their role being to run a mobile canteen for the soldiers in the battlefield.
While much is now known of the Burma conflict, the infamous Burma Railroad, known as The Death Railway, and the story told in the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, and the film of the same name directed by David Lean, the WASBies have long gone under the radar of popular military history. The unit was formed in 1942 by Mrs Ninian Taylor, who was granted the rank of Major and later awarded an OBE for her services. British and Australian women served in the WASB until It was disbanded in 1946.
Five friends from the WASBies are the characters in Kayte Nunn’s historical past and most of them come together in the modern part of the story, set in 1999, when a reunion is held in an Irish stately home where one of them now resides with her husband. The new heroine in this era is Olivia, a young Australian who has moved to London to work in the art auction business.
Circumstances bring her together with Bea, one of the WASBies and she is taken into her employ for the Irish trip. A solid friendship develops over time between the women from these two generations, cemented by facing their own and joint adversities.
The story, however, in the writing begins in 1976 with the theft of a legendary netsuke from an Oxford museum, an exquisite fox-girl. And it is this object, redolent with symbolism, that ties the stories together and which in the end is both plot device and holder of the leitmotifs – the friendship and solidarity of women, sexual conduct and misconduct, revenge, retribution and female strength.
As we have come to expect, Kayte Nunn’s characters are well developed and her heroines are sympathetically portrayed. The relationships are drawn with both sensitivity and perspicacity – there is no getting around the conflict that can arise when people are pushed together in constant company and close quarters.
The WASBies are neither saints nor retrobates; they’ve been motivated by various things in enlisting. However, they are all made of stern stuff when required and we are in no doubt that the conditions they endured were taxing in every way.
It is this that enables us to believe whole-heartedly in their capacity to attend a reunion so many years later and when, in some cases estranged, to nevertheless find resolution for old wounds.
The author invites us to redefine heroism in both the historic and contemporary contexts of The Last Reunion. Courage under difficulty takes many forms, not the least of which is to call out bad behaviour and to back up one’s friends and colleagues when under duress, even in the face of a personal conflict of loyalty. Perhaps there is a ‘right’ way to behave in some circumstances, regardless of the time period, and perhaps simple human decency towards one’s fellows is a timeless virtue.
The Last Reunion is a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive read. And again we are faced with that truism of life and literature that love in its many forms can transcend the toughest challenges.
Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Kayte for our conversation.