I regularly read Mandy Sayer’s weekly column in The Australian, delighted by her take on life, her past, her chihuahua. When Love in the Years of Lunacy was published last year I was at the bookshop with cash in hand, intrigued to discover how Mandy’s wry style would cover Sydney during WWII.
Here was familiar territory – my Mum talks about dancing at the Trocadero, with its revolving bandstands. It’s 1942 and heroine Pearl is a sax player in a jazz band at the Troc . Her twin brother Martin, also a saxophonist, moonlights in an all-black club which caters for American GIs stationed in Sydney – let’s not forget that under American segregation laws at the time these soldiers wouldn’t be welcome at the Trocadero or most other hotels, restaurants and clubs. Anyway, Pearl sneaks into the club with Martin to play with the band and meets handsome black GI, sax player extraordinaire James Washington.
Initially James gives Pearl sax lessons – and yes, you’re waiting for the play on word about sex lessons. That too. They flaunt convention by going out together but when James seeks permission to marry her, his CO has him transferred to Queensland. Ah, the White Australia policy. To say nothing of the Americans not wanting black and white to mix. How we take our multicultural world of today for granted!
Pearl attempts suicide; her doctor sends her for twelve weeks’ rehab in his private clinic and Pearl listlessly allows herself to be wooed by him. He’s a creepy bugger (my words); oily, very possessive. I couldn’t believe she agreed to marry him. He’s even convinced her to give up sax playing and she is a husk of her former self, malleable to his moulding of her.
Meanwhile Pearl’s twin Martin has joined the Army band corps and while he’s home on leave tells Pearl he met with James in Queensland. His orders come in and to his dismay his next posting is to New Guinea. At the same time, Artie Shaw’s jazz band is in Sydney. Pearl comes alive again. She dresses up in Martin’s uniform, hiding her hair, in an attempt to meet up with Artie’s band – and she bumps into James who is also in Sydney. She learns James is also being posted to New Guinea and learns that she loves him as much as she ever did, and he her.
Pearl and Martin hatch a plan for Pearl to follow James, swapping their identities. Martin – at least I presume it was he and not Pearl herself – crops Pearl’s long blonde hair to a crew cut. I was a little surprise this detail wasn’t covered with a paragraph as women in those days didn’t sport such short hair. It would have been a bit traumatic for Pearl I would have thought; perhaps the excitement of planning to see James would have been foremost in her mind.
Anyhoo the long and short of it is that Pearl gets away with her deception. She’s posted to New Guinea in the Army jazz band. Unbelievably she manages to keep her identity a secret from the other band members even when sharing a cabin on the boat to New Guinea. To me, this second half of the book is less believable than the first, less strong. However well-researched (and it is!) the New Guinea adventure didn’t resonate with the Sydney half of the book. That is probably just me though.
Band member Charlie discovers her secret when he makes a pass at her believing she’s queer, as he is, but he keeps her secret. The band plays at several jungle venues throughout New Guinea, drawing ever closer to James’ remote posting. There are deaths, there are illnesses, and there is James, who has since deserted, leaving a stray dog he has befriended behind him. Now he is even further away and Pearl and the diminishing band, plus the dog, play to fatigued soldiers; Pearl never gives up hope. She has come this far, exhausted, almost alone now, covering herself in pig fat to keep the insects away, and she knows that somehow she’ll find him.
This is a love story. What do you think?
As for whether there is a happily ever after, I’ll leave that for you to read for yourself.
Despite not enjoying the second half of the book as much as the first, I’d recommend this one. It captures the mood of Sydney during wartime – my mother confirms that. She was a teen during the war and while she didn’t move in the Kings Cross and jazz circles Pearl did, the authenticity is there she says.
For me, the music sings throughout the book. I’ve always loved swing and jazz music from the 40s, and the music itself is almost a palpable character. Mandy Sayer is a jazzman’s daughter, and her love for the music, and the musicians, shines through.