Melanie Myers transports the reader back to wartime Brisbane with her award-winning debut novel Meet Me At Lennon’s. In the early 1940s, thousands of American soldiers descended upon Brisbane and their presence was felt by all – they were glamorous, better paid and skilled at charming Australian women. Meet Me At Lennon’s explores the huge impact of this social disruption through the lives of several female characters. While there is a mystery surrounding a woman murdered on the banks of the Brisbane River in 1943, this isn’t a whodunit but a story about the experiences of these women and their connection to the ‘River Girl’.
Dual narratives cleverly connect and intersect, often unexpectedly, as the story moves between the 1940s, the 1990s and today. The contemporary narrative sees Olivia Wells struggling to complete her thesis on forgotten writer, Gloria Grantham, when she chances upon Clio Manning, a woman who may have the answers she needs. In the forties we meet Alice who receives lots of tips as a maid at the exclusive Brisbane hotel, Lennon’s. Her roommate, Val, who works at the munitions factory, loves to spend her evenings dancing and plans to elope with a US submariner. June’s husband is at war while she encounters a mysterious American stranger, while her sister Edith is expecting a proposal from ‘Frank the Yank’. Back in the present day, Olivia is managing the men in her own life – a lousy boyfriend and her absent father who suddenly wants to reconnect.
The reader must be astute and pay close attention to these timeline shifts because little details are hidden in the story, revealed in whispers. This is a book that needs to be read slowly, every line relished and absorbed. I enjoyed the way the author invented and incorporated theatre reviews, old letters and interview transcripts – we feel like we are Olivia, slowly piecing together a picture of life in 1940s wartime Brisbane. Like her main character, Melanie Myers spent time at Queensland State Archives trawling through articles about reports on sex offences committed by US soldiers to inform the context of the story, which is so well-researched and eloquently described that every scene feels like stepping through a window into the past.
Brisbane naturally features very heavily in the story – the present day vista of South Bank and its buildings – the State Library, Queensland Museum, and the Wheel of Brisbane; as well as familiar buildings that have stood the test of time – City Hall, McWhirters, and the Paddington Antique Centre, and those now long gone – Lennon’s Hotel on George Street, and the Carver Club, which once stood on Grey Street in South Brisbane, built for African American servicemen who were not permitted to cross the Brisbane River. A simmering animosity between the Australian and American soldiers culminates in the novel when one of the female characters witnesses a riot in the Brisbane CBD in November 1942, an actual event which came to be known as the Battle of Brisbane, resulting in one death and hundreds of injuries.
But it’s female experiences at the heart of this story, which holds a mirror up to the lives of women in wartime Brisbane and asks, how much has changed and how much remains the same? Sexual violence and victim blaming are hot topics and this is a novel that seeks to give these victims of sexual violence a voice, particularly those forgotten by history, and by novel’s end has given the River Girl a name. A thought-provoking read that will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.
Meet Me At Lennon’s by Melanie Myers is published by UQP.
She pressed the pointed end of it into her palm, wishing it hurt more, and hoping it would quell the relentless nausea that was roiling up again like sediment in a rain-swollen river.