Eleanor Limprecht’s latest novel is a delight, with compelling characters that kept me sitting up way past lights out.
In The Passengers, Hannah and her grandmother Sarah are travelling, on a cruise ship, from San Diego to Sydney. Sarah left Australia at the end of WW2, as a young Australian war bride married to a US serviceman she barely knew, and has never been back since. As their ship moves across the ocean Sarah tells Hannah, a young woman struggling with her own past, how it was that in 1945 she came to be on the USS Mariposa, travelling in the reverse direction.
Limprecht ably conveys a sense of time and place, describing Sarah’s early farming life and her family’s subsequent move to inner Sydney with nuance and depth. Sarah’s journey, across the sea and then across the US to her new family, is subtly mirrored by Hannah’s inner journey. Both women, in very different ways, struggle to determine whether the decisions they have made are about moving forward, or running away.
The story moves deftly between the past and the present, between Sarah’s story and Hannah’s, between the land and the sea. Sarah and Hannah are drawn with a sympathetic eye, but their flaws and mistakes are used to good effect, lifting the novel up and beyond the usual tropes of commercial fiction. This is Limprecht’s third novel and her experience shows. Thoroughly researched, The Passengers wears its erudition lightly, and the story never suffers from a surfeit of period detail. Instead, Limprecht’s readable and evocative prose propels the reader forward while at the same time effortlessly conveying multiple layers of meaning.
Nor is it a coincidence that Limprecht writes so well about the cultural difficulties of moving from one nation to another. The conflation of a writer’s life story with their fictional stories is a practice I usually condemn. Which part of ‘fiction’ don’t people understand? But in this case Limprecht’s personal experience – she is an American who is now an Australian citizen – has clearly informed her understanding of the hopes, difficulties and challenges inherent in such a move.
If this were a book about an Australian man in similar circumstances, perhaps a war veteran who marries a woman he met while serving overseas, there is every chance it would be hailed as an Important Novel. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the the Deep North, for example, was a good but not perfect novel about war and love, and he was lionised for it. But because this is a book about women, and written by a woman, I fear it will be overlooked or relegated to ‘chic lit’ status. Don’t make that mistake. The Passengers is an excellent novel that deserves a wide readership.
My review of Limprecht’s second novel, Long Bay.