Based on actual historical events and people, this novel is a powerful and moving tribute to the Australian nurses, doctors, allied health workers and civilian volunteers – British too – who did all they could for the men and women who survived the horrors of the WWI battlefields.

When Australian nurse, Sister Cora Baker, has the opportunity to serve her country at a newly established hospital in Middlesex England in a little village called Harefield in 1915, she doesn’t hesitate. Harefield House, donated to the Australian army by some generous expatriates so it can be turned into a hospital to care for wounded Australian soldiers, Cora works with other Aussie medical staff to establish and transform the grand house.

Not knowing quite what to expect, as the war rages on and the casualty and death count grow, Harefield House is overwhelmed and all too soon, Cora and the other nurses and doctors are working around the clock, exhausted but determined to do their duty. When they call for volunteers, a local, young seamstress, Jessica Chester steps up.

It’s while working at the hospital that she meets Private Bert Mott, a recuperating soldier who is destined, like so many others they care for, to be returned to the front.

As endless stream of injured and dying enter and leave the care of the dedicated nurses and doctors, it’s apparent the nurses are fighting their own kind of war, one defined by bandages, pain relief, and an abundance of loving care. But is it enough when despair, fatigue and a crushing sense of failure abide with them as well?

The Nurses’ War is an amazing story of a little-known chapter in Australian, British and war history. It doesn’t steer away from portraying the brutal realities of the physical, psychological and emotional wounds inflicted upon the soldiers, the courage of those at the front, but also that of those who fought a silent, different and harsh battle behind the lines – one of healing, resilience and hope.

Heart-achingly raw yet filled with the beauty of the human spirit, this is an important and ultimately triumphant story of Australia’s part in the Great War and what happened in the aftermath – when peace was finally reached and an unforeseen enemy arose to fell yet more. The novel explores love, loss, incredible bravery, fortitude, frustration, failure and above all, hope. It shows that heroes wear all kinds of faces and uniforms.

The Nurses’ War is a triumph that will linger in my heart and soul a long time. The Authors Notes at the end are wonderful as well. Here, Victoria not only reveals the real history behind the novel and how these people are commemorated even to this day, but a very personal link to the story as well. So incredibly moving. I should also add a caveat – I was given the privilege of reading an Advanced Readers’ Copy of this book – an ARC – and asked if I would endorse it. Hence, my quote on the front cover. Authors don’t endorse lightly, and I was proud – especially as an ex-service member – to do just that for this wonderful book.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times.

Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered.

Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love.

But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart?

This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded and real, even the minor ones. But it’s Mary that we root for and love, whose compassion and desire to break free of the shackles that she sees and feels holding herself and others back, that make you ache for her. Her – and even the less sympathetic characters who are also bound by social and other ties and cannot see their way free.

Be prepared to be transported into the past, to be caught up in a slice of Aussie history but, mostly, swept away in a completely relatable and beautifully told tale that will move and, in the end, fill you. Outstanding.

Tags: , ,

Comments: No Comments

Immigrants and Spies: My father, my memories by Barbara Mackay-Cruise

This beautifully written book, Immigrants and Spies: My Father, my memories, tells the story of a remarkable man, Noel W. Lamidey, who not only headed up one of Australia’s first immigration schemes after the WWII, but his role in the formation of ASIO as well. Told through the eyes of his youngest daughter, Barbara or Boo, it’s also the story of Australia post-World War One and Two and the role mainly white immigrants from the British colonies played in shaping what we are today.

Starting in the 1930s in Canberra, before seguing back in time and moving forward again (and taking us from England to Tasmania, Melbourne and the nation’s capital), this memoir also takes the reader on a journey through the post-Federation Australia, the Depression and then onto London and Europe and its rebuilding after the horrors of the Second World War.

While I loved reading about Barbara’s idyllic Australian childhood, her memories of school the neighbourhood, the apparent simplicity of life in then agrarian Canberra, and the loving close-knit family of which she was a part, the food they ate, the hobbies she engaged in, as well as meeting characters from Australia’s political and cultural history, I found the parts set in London and the politicking behind funding and organising the mass immigration (of almost all white folk) – and too many young children – to Australian shores from Britain and other colonial outposts, not only riveting, but relevant to today as well.

There’s no doubt, despite battling contrary personalities of different political persuasion, Noel Lamidey was a man with compassion and keen to do his job well. Certainly, from his daughter’s perspective and what his letters (parts of which are reprinted in the book) indicate, he was a man with a great deal of humanity who didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of displaced, broken, fearful people as a problem so much as a great potential which Australia could mutually benefit from.

Experiencing and witnessing first-hand the devastation of returning soldiers (British) who found the promised welcome and new life back “home” a shibboleth, seeing the terrible misery of the survivors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, Lamidey knew Australia was a solution. The only problem was, that while the English and Australian press basically produced propaganda to keep migrants keen and willing to uproot themselves for the promise of a new and better life, the reality was often very different.

Italian immigrants arriving by ship

Not only were the waves of migrants from the northern hemisphere unable to be accommodated in adequate housing in Australia, instead being put in internment camps where they were segregated by sex – including established families, but they were often met with contempt by Australians who feared their jobs would be taken. Rather than being regarded as “New Australians”, these migrants were quickly reminded they were “wogs, dagos, huns and pommy bastards” and made to feel unwelcome. Not by all, but enough for many to give up after a short time and return home. Not surprising when the promised housing was a freezing or boiling hut enclosed behind wire and shared with other men or women and you couldn’t see your loved ones. Sympathy was in short supply for those who “gave up” or complained and they were swiftly referred to as “whinging poms.”

Distressed by this situation, Lamidey would lament if only those so far away could see the conditions these immigrants had survived and wished to escape – then maybe, just maybe, compassion would be offered instead of name-calling; understanding that they felt let down instead of assuming ingratitude.

Despite all this, the book is neither sentimental nor judgemental, after all, this is, as the subtitle suggests, one woman’s memories – about her father, about life throughout these turbulent, remarkable years where, because of immigrants, the face of Australia would be forever changed and for the better. It might be easy to read this and feel uncomfortable with how obviously racially and culturally biased the immigration scheme was – but that was a fact – one upheld by the “White Australia policy” which wasn’t disbanded until the 1970s. But we mustn’t shy away from what was a part of our history, even if it was colour-blind.

As I read, I couldn’t help but compare much of what unfolded with what is happening today as our world is once again being torn apart by war – affecting people deeply and tragically; displacing them, rendering them not only homeless, but nation-less as well. And what do we do?

In one of his unpublished books held in the national archives, Aliens Control in Australia, and from which Barbara quotes, Lamidey makes this observation: “When passions are let loose by war it happens all too often that foreigners whether or not of enemy origin, and even locally born persons bearing foreign names, become the object of denunciation and persecution.”

He could have been writing about today.  Plus ca?change

Noel Lamiday and his wife, Lillian

Exploring a particular slice of history and from an unapologetically narrow perspective, this is a fascinating and gorgeously told story that I couldn’t put down. The last ten pages are interviews with a few prominent Australian immigrants and their stories – and they resonated.

Like many people, I too come from an immigrant family – one side of my family escaped the Holocaust (and later, my mother came from Israel to start a new life here and give us one), and my other side came out from Ireland and Scotland. Likewise, Lamidey brought his new wife to Australia from England after serving in WWI, raising his family here before taking them to England as work dictated. His efforts and contributions, coloured by his mainly positive experiences as a migrant, made him determined to offer the same to others. Not always successful, he never stopped trying.

A terrific and, in the end, very positive book that will appeal to those interested in Australian and British history, politics, enjoy a well-written memoir, or just want to learn what it might have been like for their ancestors – the machinations behind their relatives/family’s decision to cross to the other side of the world.

There’s no doubt, Lamidey was a champion in his daughter’s eyes and, I suspect, he will be in many others’ as well.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

The Lake House by Kate Morton

There’s both comfort and security picking up the work of an author you not only love, but know has the ability to transport you to a different time and place – Kate Morton is one of those authors and her latest novel, The Lake House, that kind of book.

9781742376516-669x1024Set in two different time periods – basically, Cornwall prior to and during WWI and London and Cornwall in 2003 (as well as brief glimpses to other decades/years), the tale has many of the ingredients we’ve come to know and love from a Morton book. There’s the magnificent house filled with nooks and crannies and, of course, secrets, hidden amidst a marvellous setting of tangled woods, a sun-dappled lake with surging seas in the distance. Cue a family of four gorgeous children with a loving mother and father, a bitter old grandmother, a depressive but faithful older friend who once wrote a successful children’s book featuring the mother of the family as his heroine, a handsome young gardener and protective nurse who live beneath the roof of this house and you have a recipe for, in Morton’s hands, an enigmatic disaster.

Move forward seventy odd years. When detective Sadie Sparrow, a dedicated London-based police officer who has taken a serious career mis-step and been forced to take time off work stumbles upon the now decaying lake house while staying with her beloved grandfather, Bertie, in Cornwall, she knows she’s found something to take her mind off her own misfortune.

Learning that the wealthy and happy Edevane family lived in the house until the youngest child, 11-month old Theo, disappeared one Mid-summer’s Eve, never to be seen again, Sadie determines to get the bottom of the mystery.

And so Sadie opens up her own investigation into the past, a past that surviving members of the Edevane family, including famous crime novelist and octogenarian, Alice Edevane, whose very first novel was about a baby who vanishes, would prefer left alone.

Segueing between the present and Sadie’s complex personal and professional situation and the discoveries about the Edevane family she makes, and moving back to pre 1914 and the formation of the Edevane family itself, the mystery of Theo’s fate is slowly and beautifully unravelled.

Readers learn how his mother, the lovely and headstrong Eleanor, meets the dashing and clever, Anthony. We are privy to the births of their children, the three girls and baby Theo. We understand the love and trust Eleanor and Anthony bear for Mr Llewellyn, but also the rancour and distance they feel towards Eleanor’s rather embittered mother, Constance. As we learn about the Edevanes and those who share the house with them, we’re given insights into how the war impacts upon the family and what lies beneath the apparent picture of perfection and happiness they all present.

Once again, the house is as much a character as any of the people who are beautifully and richly drawn. Atmospheric, Morton’s way of describing characters and place brings them to life in the mind’s eye and allows your senses to respond to each person and scene. We smell the blooms, hear the pounding of the ocean, feel the slippery reeds in the cool lake as they wrap around ankles; we experience the first pangs of love, the steadfastness of loyalty promised and fulfilled, the guilt when personal expectations fail and above all, the fear and dread that war and its aftermath brings in its wake.

This is a novel about families, secrets, regrets, promises, failings and so much more. It’s about how decisions of the past impinge upon the present. It’s about consequences, truth and lies and how running from your past is virtually impossible. As the adage goes, it has a way of catching up – and when you least expect it.

It’s also about women and motherhood and it’s in exploring these themes and the issues they raise – and over different historical and social periods – that Morton excels. Far from offering a series of binaries through which to understand women’s choices, painting a portrait of perfect or imperfect motherhood, or presenting a treatise on the failings of or superiority of one type of mothering or the vogue of a specific period compared to another, Morton examines motherhood from the inside out. The stultifying and shattering effects of patriarchy and war on family, as well as ways of liberating oneself and your offspring from these are measured, as is the extent to which mothers will go in order to do the best for their children and for the fathers who also love them. Yes, there’s guilt, self-sacrifice and a surrendering of the self in order to achieve what seems so often impossible, raising another human within shifting familial, social and cultural principles, to be balanced, happy and resilient, but there’s also internal ambivalence, a longing for the person you once were to emerge, even if that threatens to topple a carefully built edifice and undermine painstakingly laid foundations. But there’s also fleeting recognition that wearing a mask – of competency, social orderliness, happiness, no regrets – is an illusion that can do as much damage as adhering to it can avoid confrontation and the possibility of change. There are many different types of women and mothers in the book and a range of motivations offered for decisions reached. It’s easy to recognise aspects of yourself – and the children these women raise – in them all.

Captivating and heart-wrenching at times, The Lake House was a wonderful read. My only reservation is the ending is so damn neat – a bit too pat. I shed a tear as knotty threads were unravelled and mysteries solved, and while I didn’t see some of the twists coming, others I did and felt the resolutions were sometimes too perfect. It was very difficult to suspend my disbelief. The novel explored the imperfections of life so well, and then rounded out the tale by ignoring that which was so beautifully investigated. Not that this will stop me recommending this book or continuing to feel delight at what it offered – pure escapism.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans, ML Stedman

I am not sure why I picked up this book, but from memory, I think it was the title that drew me. There was something haunting as well as inviting about it, something liminal. Discovering it was a debut novel, ostensibly about a returned WWI veteran come lighthouse-keeper by Australian born Margot L Stedman only increased my curiosity.

I was not disappointed.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautiful, moving tale of Tom Sherbourne a man whose war service and the unspeakable horrors he has endured have made him quiet, repressed and unable to express his feeling with ease. Grateful for the solitude lighthouse keeping affords him, he moves from post to post as a relief keeper, never staying in one place too long. When he’s posted to Port Partageuse to relieve the last keeper (who it turns out went mad) on the remote Janus Rock, 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia, situated between the Indian and Southern Oceans, he is able to enjoy the isolation such a distant locale affords – that is, until he meets the passionate, day-dreaming Isabel who awakens him to the joys of feeling again.

Writing to each other, they maintain contact and a slow and welcome romance develops into a relationship. But when Tom takes his new wife, Izzy, to this wild outpost of Janus Rock, the idyllic life Tom and Isabel thought they would have, one where they create a perfect family, unravels.

One day, a few years into the posting and after terrible personal losses, a boat washes up on the shores of Janus Rock. Inside the boat are two people – one dead, the other very much alive. It’s the decisions that Tom and Izzy make as a consequence of the boat’s passengers, the rift this tears between duty and desire, right and wrong, need and responsibility, that change their lives and that of others for years to come.

Without spoiling the story, this novel is about the choices we make and how we live with those. It’s about truth and lies, about deception and facing reality and how we deal with these. It’s about faith in others, trust, courage and the ties of family, the love that gently and cruelly binds and which, when tested, can also shred us asunder. It’s also about grief, loss and how the past can impact upon the present – if we allow it – how we’re shaped by all our choices, good and bad. In a sense, it’s also about free will and determinism and part of the tension and joy in reading the novel arises from discovering how each character justifies their actions, which side of these binaries they identify with.

Sublimely written, poetic in its intensity and frailty, this novel places terrible choices into complex contexts and, in doing so, creates characters who are fully realised, noble, sad and capable of great strength and a depth of understanding about the actions of others as well as wilful blindness to the suffering of others. Told over a period of years, where era and place are exquisitely evoked, it moves slowly at times, at others, the tide of story surges and carries you forwards into spaces you don’t always want to go. As much a character in the tale as any of the humans, the ocean functions as both a complement and a counterpoint to the narrative.  Just as the ocean is unpredictable, so too are the main personalities all of whom have the capacity to do wondrous and terrible things. Sympathies are torn, questions about  what constitutes justice are challenged over and over.

I cared so much about each and everyone of the characters – at times, I adored them, at others, I was frustrated and saddened by their decisions, but I always understood why they acted the way they did.

This is a simply beautiful story that deserves the praise and wide audience it’s receiving. A stunning debut from a new voice that I can’t wait to hear again.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments