Author: Victoria Purman
Publisher: HQ Fiction
Publication Date: 30 March 2022
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher and via Netgalley
I read The Nurses’ War months ago, I was going to have it read and reviewed in time for release day at the end of March. But I have a problem with the next shiny new thing… which is always the next book (or 4).
Earlier this month I attended an author talk with Victoria at the Murray Bridge Library and I promised her I would actually get the review written. I walked away from the talk with an amazing lunch (Thank you McCues Bakery – delicious), a head full of information and a determination to get the review written over the weekend.
Apparently determination just wasn’t enough, in my defence I had a huge weekend of people in my house, a beautiful wedding and then a positive Covid case in the house so things haven’t really been quiet and conducive to fingers on keys.
Let me say before I start that if you ever get the opportunity to attend a talk at the Murray Bridge Library I would highly recommend it. A lovely space, friendly staff and of course delicious food. I hadn’t made a talk in Murray Bridge until now but I will definitely try to make them more often.
Also, if you can attend one of Victoria Purman’s events I would definitely recommend it. She is witty, intelligent and filled with information. You will not be disappointed. We heard about her inspiration for the book, her connections to some of the characters and settings and were treated to a short reading of quite an amusing scene. I love hearing books in the voice of the author, adds a new element and depth I find.
I read The Nurses’ War well before the talk and I was completely engrossed, the story is set in a time that I really just can not fathom. My personal life experiences are so far from the historical periods that she writes about that I don’t have a frame of reference. Listening to Purman at the author talk and getting all of the background information did give me a point of connection though and I thought that was super cool.
Now that I’m going to review and touch on the author talk together I don’t really know where to start.
History was never really a subject that drew me in and I think a lot of that is because I have no frame of reference, it’s all so far removed from my own personal experiences, but reading Purman’s historical fiction draws me all of the way in and fascinates me. The fact that she is a South Australian author who writes characters or settings close to home may help with that, or it could just be her story-telling abilities.
Sister Cora Barker is a nurse from South Australia who has embarked on a 6 week journey by boat to England where she is going to help set up a hospital for Australian soldiers in an English Manor house. The fascinating thing here is that Harefield Park is a real place, that became an (I want to say the first) Australian Military Hospital. It was donated by ex-patriots and Purman went into detail on how this all came about in her author talk. She was so enamoured by the sacrifice the Billyard-Leake family made that she included them in the book. Some of the stipulations made by the Billyard-Leakes was that the hospital was only for Australians, that all patients be treated equally regardless of rank and that all the doctors and nurses were also Australian.
Exterior of `Harefield House’ the former stately home taken over by the No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital (1AAH) in 1915-03. On the right is the corner of one of the first wards and hidden from view behind the shrubbery is the bay window of the first operating theatre (formerly the sitting room). (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C316226
Harefield Park became the No.1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, also referred to as Harefield Hospital. It was originally estimated that the hospital would house anywhere from 50-150 wounded soldiers but at it’s peak there were over 1000 soldiers housed. The grounds were quickly lined with huts for wards, mess halls and stores as the scope of the hospital rapidly grew. The hospital was set up for use during the war in 1915, when everyone was sure the war would end by Christmas – but it didn’t. The war dragged on and the hospital grew, and grew, and grew.
The Nurses’ War follows the lives of the original four nurses that travelled from Australia to help transform the house into a hospital. Purman paints them in a realistic light, she said in her talk that she wanted to make sure they came across as authentic, rather than perfect. They suffered through terrible conditions and were faced with the knowledge that if they did their jobs well they were just sending these soldiers straight back into the firing line, quite literally.
We get to know the four original nurses quite well but Cora is definitely our leading lady. Purman gives us a great insight into the lives of the nurses and the struggles they faced. The lives of these women were so different to ours, it really is difficult to think about the fact that they could work or they could marry; they couldn’t do both. Career nurses who were passionate about their jobs were destined to be lonely because the moment they found a partner they were required to give up their jobs, even in a time where the need for nurses was at an absolute high.
The war dragged on and it became harder and harder for the staff at the hospital to remain optimistic but they kept on keeping on and doing the best they could, always extending the capacity of the hospital to try and keep up with demand. Forever watching the stream of soldiers come and go.
The subject matter is quite hard to handle at times but Purman manages to inject moments of levity; there is humour and there is an element of romance, there is an ever present sense of hope and a holistic look at life in Harefield Hospital for both the staff and the patients.
We are also allowed an insight into how the hospital impacted on the nearby town and it’s residents. Jessie Chester is one of the residents of the nearby village, a young seamstress living at home with her mother and disabled brother. Her life has always been quite sheltered and she’s been happy watching the world go by her front window.
In the early days Jessie and her mother help clean as the house is transformed, and then she returns to her life in the village, but it gives her a taste for something more and when the call goes out for more help Jessie takes on a role at the hospital, while still helping her mother as a seamstress.
There are characters in The Nurses’ War that are based on real people, the hospital is a real place, and though the book is historical fiction there is always an element of things that really happened. Purman manages to bring history to life for me and leave me fascinated in a way that I never have been before.
This book is weighty, both in it’s subject matter and it’s page count. I read it on Kindle so didn’t realise just how big it was until I saw a print copy and at 577 pages … it’s big. It’s fascinating, enthralling and heartbreaking.
I absolutely loved The Nurses’ War and Sister Cora Barker is a character who will stay with me for a long time yet. Victoria Purman you’ve done it again. Loved, loved, loved it.
For more information on Harefield House and the Billyard-Leakes there is some great references in the back of The Nurses’ War and Google is your friend, you won’t be disappointed.