Mary-Anne O’Connor – At the Going Down of the Sun

Published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books, Australia, 2024
Cover design by Nikki Townsend Design @ penguin Random House Australia P/L
Cover images by Natasza Fiedotjew/Trevillion Images, RockingStock/Alamy Stock Photo, Andrew Kitching/Alamy Stock Photo, Adobe Stock

This historical fiction takes in the period immediately pre-World War I and during the war, with a reflective epilogue dated 1921. The author vividly depicts the closeness and class consciousness of Adelaide society at the time, with its typically restrictive views on the lot of women and its notions of respectability and decorum.

Mary-Anne O’Connor spoke to Barbie about At the Going Down of the Sun

Enter our feisty heroine Molly James, disgraced when found in what used to be called ‘a compromising position’ with a married man and banished to rural Rainbow to stay in the home of her aunt.

There she meets the lovably larrikin brothers Archie and Thom with their ambitions to fly; sooner than expected the dream is realised when they both sign up for the Air Force. Not long after this, they find themselves in theatres of war including Gallipoli.

Molly’s life, along with Joanie’s, who becomes her firm friend despite their tangled love lives, is bound to pall when pressure is placed upon her to marry ‘well’. Her heart is well and truly committed elsewhere and she makes an escape in order to join the nursing services; at the eleventh hour, she manages to convince Joanie to abscond too.

The domestic and romance strands of the book of course carry the larger story of the conflict waging across the sea. We see in the stories of both the women and the men acts of courage and daring, flouting of authority and convention. The strength of friendship and kinship shines through this account of the war from an Australian perspective.

While the novel is propelled by the real-life events of the First World War, it is also a strongly character driven work. Our admiration and affection for the main cast is unquestionable.

This is one of the powers of historical fiction, I think – its capacity to make personal and close to home the big events of historical record. When we live with Molly the nursing experiences and see the shattered men, we are swept out of theory and rolls of honour and into heart territory.

The book has a sense of vastness about it. There is the vast expanse of the Australian countryside with its golden wheat fields and big skies. And there is the lure of that sky for the pilots who see Gallipoli and other military placements from the air when on information gathering missions. Even Molly is treated to a bird’s eye view of the world, which causes her to reflect on the smallness of humankind.

Female friendship is a popular theme in contemporary novels and it is well developed here. Molly felt like a fish out of water at school in Adelaide, finding nothing in common with the flighty and unkind girls there and often being ostracised.

Her banishment to Rainbow further fuels her sense of isolation and loneliness and so it is a deep delight when she realises that she has finally found that closeness with Joanie – albeit it’s not an entirely smooth road on the way.

The brotherly bonds of Archie and Thom are similarly well depicted. The author is clearly across that endless tussle that male siblings experience and in this case she has spiced it up with conflicting matters of the heart.

At the Going Down of the Sun is a thoughtful telling of the Gallipoli story with highly charged moments – Cometh the hour, cometh the man (a reference to Winston Churchill) still rouses the emotions of the reader and leads us to add ‘and the woman’. It is told with both humour and reverence, the former an antidote the darkness of histories of war, fictional or other.

Mary-Anne O’Connor proves herself again, in this her ninth novel, as a consummate storyteller and a committed seeker of historical perspective.

Thank you to Penguin Books for my review copy and to Mary-Anne for speaking with me about her family connection to World War I and the writing of historical fiction including this highly readable and affecting novel.