Sarah and her granddaughter Hannah are travelling from San Diego to Australia by cruise liner. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as well as the completing of a circle: Sarah was a war bride who left her family back in Sydney in 1946 to sail to the American husband she barely knew. She hasn’t been back since. American granddaughter Hannah, a student nurse, has left her boyfriend behind and has her own struggles with compulsive exercising and anorexia. She’s filled with self-loathing and as she listens to Sarah tell her life story from her childhood onwards, Hannah begins to see her grandmother, and herself, anew.
The Passengers is more solidly commercial, but in some ways it’s a blending of the preoccupations of Eleanor Limprecht’s first two novels. Hannah’s mental illness is foreshadowed in the critically acclaimed What Was Left, about a young woman with severe postnatal depression, and Long Bay, Limprecht’s reimagined true story about an abortionist convicted of manslaughter in Sydney in 1909, showed her flair for the historical. The Passengers, however, is less successful than its forerunners.
Part of the problem is the setting. Nothing much happens on the present-day cruise – apart from one plot point that seems unbelievable both practically and in terms of the characters as they are established – so they’re both sitting around the ship waiting to arrive. It’s as if the characters are reading their stories from their deckchairs. Scenes never really come to life and, instead, much of the story sweeps by in an explanatory summary.
The “bride ships” that transported thousands of young Australian women and their children to America should make for fascinating fiction. Some of the wives, like Sarah, knew their husbands for only a few short weeks, and nothing whatever of their destinations. Limprecht’s usual light touch with research isn’t in evidence, though.
It sounds unlikely but despite the war, various romances, Sarah’s migration and Hannah’s health problems, nothing remarkable seems to happen in either of their lives. There are plenty of moving novels about tragic and joyous small things, of course, but the characters need complexity and an ability to see and feel things in original ways. That’s missing here. There’s another story hidden under this one, of an elderly woman bowed by nostalgia and regret and a young woman forestalling adulthood by torturing her own body. LS
Allen & Unwin, 344pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Eleanor Limprecht, The Passengers ". Subscribe here.