TAKING A CHANCE
Author: Deborah Burrows
Pan Macmillan RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Last year I read Deborah Burrows’ debut novel, A Stranger on my Street, and found myself taken with her insight into wartime Perth – I’m too young to remember and I haven’t lived here long enough to be called a native! Following that, I invited Burrows to speak at a Stories on Stage event: against a set for a Jack the Ripper: The Musical production she shared photos and anecdotes about Perth, a blast from the past enjoyed by many of my (mostly older) ‘regulars’ at these events. Quite a few were left feeling nostalgic and misty-eyed by the end! Her latest novel, Taking a Chance, is also set in wartime Perth, but with a different cast of characters; once again, it’s a romance/mystery/crime novel.
It’s 1943. Rations and black-outs are still in force; sons, husbands and lovers are still reporting for wartime service, knowing full well they may never return, and women are still holding the fort at home. Against this backdrop, Nell, a fashion journalist at scandal rag Marvel, has been asked to cover a sensational news story – the sentencing of Lena Mitrovic, convicted of the murder of artist Rick Henzell. When Lena mouths a message to someone in the gallery, Nell’s curiosity is piqued; she is sure the message recipient was Johnny Horvath, from the American Press Corps. As it turns out, Johnny and Lena do know each other and Johnny is convinced of Lena’s innocence – enough so that he wants to Nell to help him uncover the truth.
Nell is smart and ambitious, but she’s not sure she’s ready for investigative journalism of this sort. However, when she meets Evie, a young girl flirting with danger, Nell realises that a number of young girls seeking excitement and romance with visiting American servicemen are becoming caught up in a seedy world from which it’s hard to break free. For some, innocent flirtations become a pathway to liaisons that lead to hasty marriages and unwanted pregnancies; others find themselves falling into prostitution. When Nell realises how close Evie was to such a life, she becomes determined to use journalism to make a difference and improve conditions for these girls, as well as helping to exonerate Lena.
Moving from her comfort zone of re-modelling hats and sharing style tips to writing a feature article is a big chance, but Nell soon realises she’s taking a chance on something bigger than that. She’s almost engaged to a nice lawyer, but Johnny is an attractive man who makes his fondness for Nell clear. Other women are all too quick to tell her that he’s a womaniser, so can she trust Johnny to just be friends? Or, does she need to take a chance on something more than that? Is there ever a time when throwing caution to the wind is right? One thing Nell does know, even if she’s confused about everything else, is that she doesn’t want to be another statistic.
Burrows’ second novel is a well-written, engaging one; I liked A Stranger in my Street, but I enjoyed Taking a Chance even more. I think Burrows seems more comfortable as a writer this time around; the story had a nice, even flow that made it a pleasure to read. Her central characters, Nell and Johnny, were well-rounded and complemented each other well; where Nell was weak, Johnny was strong and vice versa. Nell’s suspicions about Johnny were understandable – age, inexperience, circumstance – but it was good to see her develop as she became more confident of herself. I also found myself drawn to some of the secondary characters, such as Evie and Aunty May; Nell’s aunt was such a giving, compassionate woman that I wanted a hug from her too! I felt that Nell (and later, Evie) was lucky to have her as a role model. Overall, the novel is more character-driven than plot-driven – the mystery is clearly secondary to the romance aspect. While in some novels that can be at the expense of tying up all the loose ends, I felt satisfied that everything on the mystery front was sorted. Another day, another news story.
What stood out for me? I was fascinated once again by the glimpse of Perth in bygone days – the descriptions are warmly nostalgic, but not cloying; the examination of the impact of the “American occupation” gives the book just enough edge to wipe the gloss from the past. I think this aspect will particularly appeal to women readers in Perth, but will extend beyond to anyone with a taste for a vintage read. We all like to look back at the past with misty eyes, but sometimes the past is hiding a greater story. The other aspect that stood out for me was the insight into societal expectations of women at the time – such as, it was okay to have lunch with a man (if you were engaged to someone else), but ‘never dinner’. Expectations of women and their ‘place’ seemed to undergo a big, temporary shift because of the war (working in ‘men’s jobs’ and so on). Nell had a job in the newspaper, a man’s world, during the war, but would most likely have had to stop working once married (after the war ended, of course). I did wonder if she would so quickly have risen up the ranks in real life though; then again, that could have been realistic for that particular period. Oh, and the car Johnny drove … I had no idea that’s what it was like to drive a car back then. The movies would have you believe they all tootled along, women with hair blowing under a scarf, men with steampunk-style goggles … not so, apparently! At least, not in this case.
Warm and satisfying, Taking a Chance is a worthwhile read that will appeal to lovers of historical stories, romances and gentle mysteries.
Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.
Bookish treat: An old-fashioned dessert like bread ‘n’ butter pudding would go down a treat.