The Orphan Gunner
Giramondo, $29.95 pb, 374 pp
This marvellous first novel may be historical fiction, but its themes and concerns are by no means limited to the past. Sara Knox interweaves questions of gender and identity, sexuality, class and the overarching issue of morality in times of war.
England during World War II proves the perfect setting for exploring these issues, and for the relationships at the heart of the novel. Olive and Evelyn grew up together in rural Australia, along with Evelyn’s brother Duncan. The trio are close-knit, but Olive and Evelyn share a curiously close bond, peppered with hints and innuendo that grow in frequency and intensity as the novel develops. The unresolved sexual tension underlying much of the action, not just between the two women, but threaded through various relationships, is cleverly done. Knox keeps the reader guessing throughout; her finely directed barbs, subtlest of nuances and sudden revelatory flashes show her to be a mistress of the art of literary flirting: ‘The awful situation in Europe and the friend she’d never been able to manage merged in [Olive’s] mind: both invited things to happen that were exceptional to the rule; both were bound to be a source of compunction where she was concerned.’