Sara Knox couldn’t help herself. The university lecturer and author simply had to find a way to weave death into her first work of fiction.
Knox, who teaches university students about the cultural history of death and violence, was unable to explain where her macabre fascination stemmed from.
“I don’t really know, I have always been a morbid little critter,” she said.
“I guess I just like death – my preoccupation is violent death.”
But there is far more to her first novel, The Orphan Gunner, than the loss of lives.
For while it is set to the violent backdrop of the Second World War, The Orphan Gunner tells the beautiful story of a shy and hesitant romance between two Australian women.
Evelyn and Olive, who grew up together in the Canabolas Valley near Orange, find themselves in England at the outbreak of war.
Evelyn becomes a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary and Olive enlists in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
With Evelyn disguised as a man, the pair become enmeshed in a plot to get Evelyn’s brother Duncan, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, out of service.
“I wanted to write a book about a woman passing as a man in order to serve, which happened in the First World War, and in a whole set of wars before that,” Knox said.
And while it would have been difficult for a woman to pass as a man during the Second World War, Knox added, the nature of the air force, where servicemen commuted to the war, would have made it viable.
The romance that emerges between the two women was described by Knox as “melodramatic, but downbeat”.
“The protagonist Oliver is clearly in love with Evelyn, but she doesn’t want to be abnormal, so she can’t do anything about it,” Knox said.
“So a lot of it is about being in a position where, from the outside, what they are doing is perfectly normal because one of them is seen as a man.”
The novel took Knox three years to complete. She travelled to Lincolnshire and the Imperial War Museum in London to research the book and, during the last months, “dragged the book around trying to find an agent”.
“Then there is a long period of despair and isolation,” Knox laughed.
With the book now on the shelves, Knox will return to the University of Western Sydney, where she will lecture about the history of death, the representation of violence and her favourite, execution narratives.
The Orphan Gunner is published by Giramondo Publishing and distributed by Tower Books.

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