Part-love story, part-spy drama, Lucy Neave’s debut novel is set largely in America during the Cold War – a time when paranoia and suspicion was rife and loyalty was not something to be taken for granted.
The story revolves around Annabel and Bill, two Australians who meet and fall quickly in lust, then love, as students. The young lovers are separated for a time by World War II, but on Bill’s return they decide to marry and move to the United States to pursue their careers as microbiologists, which is when the plot intensifies.
Based in New York, the two end up working at the same laboratory doing research on deadly infectious diseases. While the ultimate purpose of the tests is initially unclear, the secretive nature of the work and the backdrop of an escalating Cold War hints at something other than humanitarian goals.
Other factors also begin to cast a pall over what at first seemed like a peachy new life. Annabel and Bill’s immigrant friends, co-worker Frank Sheedy and his wife Suzy, have leftist leanings and communist connections that seem dangerous at a time when the Committee on Un-American Activities is fiercely targeting “reds under the bed”. Annabel, who narrates the story, is also growing suspicious that the man she loves hasn’t revealed the full extent of his suffering in the war and may be keeping other secrets from her.
All of which ratchets up the tension and makes the second half of Who We Were an intriguing and compelling read (if you can suspend disbelief that anyone with even vaguely suspect political views would have been allowed to continue working at a top-secret lab in 1950s America).
The main problem I had with this novel, however, is that the condensed timeline of the early part of the story – seven years’ worth of life, love, war and loss crammed into just four chapters – doesn’t allow the reader to become fully invested in the key characters. Nor are the building blocks of Annabel and Bill’s relationship sufficiently established or developed; there seemed a lack of real intimacy, despite the cover note describing Who We Were as a “powerful love story”. This means that when things begin to unravel, it’s not the sucker-punch it should be.
Nonetheless, this is a strong debut from Neave, who depicts well the tension of Cold War America. She is certainly a young Australian author to watch.
Who We Were, by Lucy Neave, is published by Text Publishing, $29.95.
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