The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn: A fascinating, fact-based story with a thrilling twist - book review -
The Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) was a group of courageous English, Australian and Canadian women who braved bombs and bullets to run mobile canteens on the frontline of the Far Eastern campaign in the last year of the Second World War.
They were the forgotten women of the forgotten war…
Nicknamed the Wasbies, these unsung heroes worked even closer to the action than nurses, and their remit was to provide the troops with not just home comforts like tea and cakes but, more importantly, to boost their morale.
And it is these ‘intrepid, adaptable and purposefully cheerful women’ who provide the inspiration for a heartbreaking and gripping tale of love, passion, mystery and real history from Kayte Nunn, a former book and magazine editor who has already made waves with her bestselling novels The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House.
Set across three different timelines, and played out against the contrasting backdrops of Burma, Oxford, London and Galway, The Last Reunion brings to vivid life a little known chapter of women’s history during the deployment of General Sir William Slim’s British 14th Army.
In Oxford in 1976, at the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman who does not as a rule ‘lie, cheat or steal,’ slips into the famous Ashmolean museum in broad daylight and steals several rare and valuable Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl.
Despite the offer of a considerable reward for these tiny, exquisitely detailed and highly collectable carved toggles – used by Japanese men in the 17th century to secure the sash on their kimonos – they are never seen again.
Over 20 years later in London in 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, 27-year-old Australian art graduate Olivia Goddard is working as an assistant to a city art dealer when she is despatched to Wiltshire just days before Christmas to visit the home of Beatrix Pelham.
The elderly widow wants to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art which includes the missing fox-girl netsuke. Concealing her own hidden motives for being interested in the fox-girl, Olivia is stranded with Beatrix over Christmas by a severe cold and a heavy snowfall and then agrees to travel with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested and secrets kept for more than fifty years are set to be spilled.
As the past unravels, Olivia discovers that in Burma in 1945, army officer’s daughter Beatrix and her friends Plum Vellacourt, Bubbles Morgan-Jones, Joy Hatfield and fellow Aussie Lucy Robertson were five young women in search of adventure and helping to fighting a forgotten war in the jungle.
Assigned to run a mobile canteen in a battered Chevy truck, navigating treacherous roads, dodging hostile gunfire, and dispensing goodwill and a cheerful face to the men, they soon become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own… battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives and might ultimately tear them apart.
Prepare to have your senses filled with the sights and sounds of wartime Burma, and your heartstrings well and truly tugged as Nunn sweeps us into the past alongside a feisty and fearless bunch of females who risked life and limb to do their bit for the frontline soldiers fighting a cruel war.
As the bonds of shared struggle, endurance, trauma and camaraderie bind together the female friends, they must also play out their own personal and haunting battles which will ripple down the years and test loyalties until the final, long overdue reckoning when they meet again in Ireland.
Weaving between three crucial timelines, and using art historian Olivia as the link between past and present, Nunn ensures that the drama, the mystery, the secrets and the painful legacy of events in Burma in the deciding chapter of the war in the heat and humidity of the Far East are never far from the surface of this compelling story.
Filled with immaculate research, and the sacrifices, privations and bravery of the Wasbies, The Last Reunion is as informative and entertaining as it is emotionally powerful and page-turning in its intensity.
A fascinating, fact-based story with a thrilling twist…
(Orion, paperback, £8.99)