Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1914 - Two young nurses pledge to help the war effort: Mairi, a wholesome idealist hoping to leave behind her past and Elsie, a glamorous single mother with a weakness for handsome soldiers. Despite their differences, the pair become firm friends.
At the emergency medical shelter where they're based, Elsie and Mairi work around the clock to treat wounded soldiers. It's heart-breaking work and they are at constant risk from shelling, fire and disease. But there are also happier times… parties, trips and letters. And maybe even the possibility of love with an attractive officer in their care…
But as the war continues and the stress of duty threatens to pull the two women apart, will Elsie and Mairi's special nurses' bond be strong enough to see them through?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The War Nurses to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
What an absolute pleasure to discover a new author in my favourite genre - historical fiction. Right from the moment I saw the announcement of the cover and the details surrounding The War Nurses by Lizzie Page I knew I had to read this book. I was glad to read a book set during Word War One as I find that a lot of female authors writing in this genre if writing about the wars normally choose to write about World War Two. It was only about half way through reading this story that I realised the two female characters were real people who endured the front-line of the Belgian battle fields. It only served to re-enforce for me what incredible people both Elsie and Mairi were. The pair sacrificed so much, going above and beyond the call of duty. Putting themselves in close proximity to danger and death countless times in a bid to play a small part in a much larger fight to keep the evil forces at bay.
It's hard to believe that this is only the début from Lizzie Page as she writes as if she has so much experience under her belt as if she has written numerous books previously. A wealth of research was clearly undertaken as there was so much detail in this book as in the conditions they experienced on the front, the lack of basic amenities and supplies and the sheer terror and anxiousness that was always there. Never could they rest easy until the war was won. To say Mairi and Elsie were brave would be a massive understatement. The journey they undertook was one which would change both their lives forever and as well as giving a view into the lives and nurses at the time the author shone a light on a friendship that developed but that was not without troubles and difficulties in its own right.
Mairi never expected to be asked to join up and help with the war effort. In fact when Dr. Munro arrives in 1914 just several weeks after the outbreak of war to her family home she suspects he is going to offer his hand in marriage which was kind of strange considering he was a virtual stranger. No instead he asks her to join the Flying Ambulance Corps he is hoping to set up with a view to travelling to Belgium to aid the hospitals already established over there. In particular to help with the transport of wounded soldiers from the front lines to the fist aid stations and hospitals. Why choose someone so young as Mairi is only 16? But she has made a name for herself riding motorbikes, known for her courage, tenacity and bravery when in the saddle. Dr. Munro believes these qualities will transfer themselves to the transport and treatment of soldiers, she has little or no nursing skills but she will learn so much on site.
Everyone believed the war would be over by Christmas so I sensed Mairi viewed this trip as just a short journey but little did she realise within a few weeks she would be a changed woman and weeks would turn into years. I really can't imagine any girl of 16 in the present day to be so willing to leave the comforts of her own home for the destruction and appealing conditions of the war front. It shows how strong, determined and dedicated to their country these people were. Mairi views Dr. Munro's request as an opportunity to serve, it is a calling and a responsibility to her country.
A group sail across to Belgium, Arthur, a New York Times reporter married to Helen, Lady Dorothy, a suffragette, Dr. Munro, Mairi and Elsie Knocker. Elsie is 30 and very glamorous, she is a league apart from Mairi but yet Mairi is drawn to her. She exudes this aura, one of confidence that she can get anything she sets her mind on. In fact Elsie is also known as Gypsy and has raced motorbikes against Mairi in the past. Mairi although only having just met Elsie properly on board the ship feels like she has known her forever. There are people you come across in life and you take one look at them and you can see into their soul, sense all their fears, hopes, dreams and aspirations and for Mairi, Elsie is that person. Together they will go on a remarkable journey that will bring them very close together but their friendship will be detested to the max under the most inhumane of conditions.
I felt throughout the story that Elsie was very much an enigma. That we never got to know the real person behind all the bravado. It was almost like she was playing a role where as Mairi was too vulnerable and inexperienced to do so. She was very much led by Elsie and it seemed as if when you have a best friend that at times you can fall under their spell and do everything they ask of you and you will do it even if you know some of those things aren't right. No doubt about it Elsie was tough and had life experience but this too would come to Mairi given the horrors of the sights they will experience. She had no other option but to garner strength and push her feelings and lack of training to one side. When you are faced with a man in immense pain right before you, you have no other choice but to spring into action and do the best you can to save his life. If Elsie had not been a member of Dr. Munro's team Mairi would have had a different war time experience and maybe we may not have been reading about her today.
I found Elsie to be brusque, in both the way she spoke to Mairi and the way she treated her. At times she could be lovely towards her and a really support and other times I never knew whether what she was saying was fact or fiction. Elsie played with fire in the way she took Mairi and they struck out on their own in the basement of an abandoned house very close to the front line.I knew she wanted to do the best she could to help the men in need but in doing so was she placing the pair in more danger than necessary. The same could be said for the romance element of the book. I felt there too she played a game and was able to wind people around her finger to get what she wanted but not always to the best affect. In fact her methods and manner often led to hurt and confusion for others. Elsie was certainly a character very hard to read as she blew hot and cold and I never could sense if her intentions were always trustworthy and generous.
I did think the middle part of the book dragged a bit with a lot of repetition. Yes the detail surrounding the setting up of the mini treatment site by Elsie and Mairi and all the medical terms and the horrors and deprivation that befell the soldiers was all necessary and brilliantly executed but it did go on a bit with nothing much happening. This is what I thought at the time of reading but now having had time to mull things over I suppose this was the reality of war. The daily drudgery of trying to get by with little in the way of medical equipment or supplies with countless men arriving needing help and treatment. Their days which turned into weeks and months did probably entail so much repetition as there couldn’t have been action all the time. The war wasn't won in a day as is often said.
Once I passed the mid section, I thought the book did really pick up again and it showcased how being the only two women on the front, both Elsie and Mairi were heroic, valiant, and undauntable. They were hard-working women doing their best at all times not knowing what each new day would bring them. Mairi throughout clung to her faith in Christianity to get her through the tough times. She held her principles dear and though she could be termed a sidekick for Elsie she was always that little bit reluctant to venture down a path that Elsie may be leading her down. She may have gone there under duress. Where as I felt Elsie was more volatile, burying issues deeper and attempting to come across as a happy go lucky girl who is always up for a good time with any man who crosses her path and takes her fancy. Maybe this was her way of putting what she saw everyday to the back of her mind.
The War Nurses was a brilliant read and although a fictionalised account of the friendship between two real life heroes I would loved to think that a lot of these things did happen especially the connection Mairi builds for herself between the little girl who once lived in the house of the basement they occupy and herself. Lizzie Page has highlighted the immense bravery and dedication of two women over 100 years ago who set out to make a difference. I had never heard of them before and it was a pleasure to read their story and to know that so many more readers will have the opportunity to get a glimpse into their lives and all that they did. Elsie and Mairi were women ahead of the times.
Towards the end when I felt things would begin to wind down a little bit the author threw in a few curve balls that made me change my opinion of certain characters but it added even more depth to the story. I do think this would be a good book for a book club discussion as both women and the development from when they first met to the very end was absolutely fascinating. As everything was wrapped up I questioned how could the author write another two books in this series but it became clear that the next book – The War Nurses at Christmas will focus on a different character, May Turner who was a friend of Elsie's and is struggling to keep her family together while she works in a field hospital at the Somme. Judging by what I have read in book one this second book looks set to be just as good and I can't wait for its publication later in the year. Do yourself a favour and buy this book you won't be sorry you did.