By Matilda Lees
Content Warning: This article discusses domestic violence, sexual violence, and racism as referenced throughout the novel.
‘A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise, it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.’
One characteristic of historical fiction is that no matter the setting you are bound to learn secrets that are archived between cities that feel ancient and character arcs that are intriguing to pursue. So, when the subtle mention of a familiar location flows through each page you can’t help but feel a little spark of joy. Especially when you encounter the John Oxley Library — three floors above you in the library café. In this sort of scenario, you can’t help but recognise that the ground you find yourself standing on has been a placemat for so many generations before you.
Melanie Myers’ debut novel Meet Me at Lennon’s wanders through every corner, street, and landmark of Brisbane in a time where the Second World War’s advancement sees American soldiers (also referred to as ‘Yanks’) deployed to the city amid combat in the Pacific. While not a central location of the novel, the title’s reference to Lennon’s Hotel books us in for a reservation set in 1942-43. American troops frequent the Hotel — their headquarters — and set up additional chairs for flirtatious flings with Australian women. The novel encounters the violent tensions between American and Australian soldiers, embedded racism from both armies, as well as the objectionable treatment of women. It’s a fictional account that brings the jitterbug and fur coats back to life, yet we are reminded that not much in our society has changed.
Upon arriving at the lounge, we meet Olivia, a university student researching and completing her thesis on fictionalised 1940s Australian playwright Gloria Graham, who finds a murder case of an unnamed girl dubbed “River Girl” that has remained out of the public eye. We also shake hands with some more important characters from wartime Brisbane: Valerie, Alice, and June, all of whom have some form of relation to each other and, ultimately, the case of the River Girl. Their narratives intersect, converse, and share a drink or two – all while Olivia struggles with her own family and romantic relationships.
Myers proves to have engaged in an extensive amount of research which should be acknowledged. What sinks the story though is not its idea, but its execution.
Like Victoria Bridge, Myers connects Brisbane’s past and present using a play of intersecting timelines. While this tactic is all rather interesting, it seems as though the author has pursued the idea into oblivion. Having three separate stories all in different time periods wandering the same streets of Brisbane calls for constant page-turning between chapters, disrupting the story’s development with the reader. This constant game of ‘have I read this name before?’ depletes the excitement one usually feels when beloved characters finally meet. Instead, it’s replaced with a headache as perfect fall into knots. It’s disheartening to read the sentences back to make sure you really did interpret Myers’ ploy.
This comes about due to the decision to name every character we encounter. While it seems to have been done to create a sense of realism, it falls short, and Myers inadvertently confuses her reader. To be introduced to approximately 80 characters (some staying at first-name basis only) across 260 pages in a third-person narrative is overwhelming. Because these characters require introductions, the story never truly begins until the page number reaches triple digits. It’s constructed to the point where the names that are crucial to remember come to be forgotten by the end, resulting in a dissatisfying final act.
What is genuinely a great premise has essentially become 260 pages of information overload. Although this is not such a terrible thing. Meet Me at Lennon’s is a story that cannot be read once. Unless your copy is inundated with underlines, scribbles in margins, creased papers from fingers that flip between chapters, there will be clues and hints burrowed deep within the story. Once you delve into these rereads with pens that scratch between gaps, you’ll pick up on the River Girl’s real name before the characters discover it for themselves; you’ll pick up the subtle hints and characteristics of the soldier who attacked Valerie one night; you’ll pick up on how Olivia’s own fling with a LA-based acting coach will leave them at the end of the novel. There are myriad hidden mentions that you miss previously, but will make for a fascinating second read.
What Myers gets right is making the past feel like the present. Olivia’s contemporary narrative – specifically her toxic relationship with boyfriend Sam – exist in parallel to the historic narratives. While much has progressed for women since 1942, the #MeToo movement, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the Australian media bullying courageous SA survivors (Brittney Higgins and Grace Tame spring to mind) make us revaluate our perceptions of progress. The micro-aggression women endure in the novel are palpable, mirrored by our society. No matter how much we want to believe it’s better now, the work is not done. Myers has held a mirror for us to gaze into and begs us to understand that there is much left to do.
As we sip on our final drinks of the night, it is safe to assure that Meet Me at Lennon’s is a story that deserves multiples reads to holistically interpret the breadth of Myers’ first novel. As a light read, it’s hefty, confusing, and headache-inducing. Maybe after another read, we might find new ideas to share at our next reservation.
Matilda Lees (@hercul33s on Instagram) is an emerging writer and filmmaker living on Yugambeh land/Gold Coast. Her practice often explores the human experience, alignment and intimacy, and nostalgia in all its twisted being.