The Orphan Gunner

This marvellous first novel has definite, unmistakable echoes of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch: both are World War II romances that explore the way that the wartime ‘man shortage’ transformed women’s roles, with lasting effects. And yes, both novels have a lesbian love affair at their heart. But I beg you: don’t let the sexuality of the main characters define your response to this book. Like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty or Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City sextet, this is not a ‘gay novel’. It’s a clever, evocative, finely nuanced exploration of gender and identity, sexuality, class, and the morality of war; rich with inventive imagery. Middle-class, seemingly conventional Olive and aristocratic, eccentric Evelyn grew up together in Orange, NSW, with Evelyn’s sensitive brother Duncan. The trio are reunited on an air base in Scotland, and together they navigate the challenges of war – and the roles that society has assigned them, ultimately rebelling in a most unexpected way. Evelyn in particular is a fantastic character, a glamorous tomboy in the mould of Katharine Hepburn. And in the spirit of a 1950s movie, the dialogue and action are often coy on the surface, while bubbling with sly subtext and barely-there barbs.