A quick rundown… Iris reflects back on her time as a nurse in a Scottish hospital in WWI France, while her granddaughter Grace has issues of her own to deal with.
Strengths: A piece of history I didn’t know about plus I was really moved by Iris and Grace.
Weaknesses: I guessed what was going wrong with Henry after a couple of chapters and it started me thinking…
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Setting: France and Australia
Rating: 9 out of 10
The cover of In Falling Snow is deceptive. Yes, there is a little snow in this book and it may be easy to categorise this book as a Christmas special. Please don’t do that. Beneath its cover, this book holds a very interesting story of family, history, war, medicine, suspense and a touch of romance.
In Falling Snow is told from two different time periods using two different main characters. The first person we meet is Iris Crane, a young Australian nurse, off to Europe to bring home her underage brother who is a soldier in World War I. Later, in approximately 1970s Brisbane, we meet Iris again as an elderly lady but the focus is on Grace, her grand-daughter. Grace is fighting sexism at work as a doctor and worrying about her son Henry at night. What is the common thread that ties these two stories together? It’s more than family and it will be a shocking revelation to the reader and characters alike.
This book is fascinating as it tells a piece of World War I I wasn’t familiar with, nor had I read about elsewhere. Iris, on arrival in France, is swept away to assist the leader of Royaumont, a hospital set up by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and run entirely by women. Royaumont Hospital was situated in Royaumont Abbey, a magnificent piece of architecture. MacColl describes Royaumont beautifully, a real place, that can be visited today.
The cloister at Royaumont (Photo from Wikipedia)
Inside the magnificent structure, Miss Frances Ivens, director and doctor is trying to be taking seriously by the French to have Royaumont registered as a hospital. Here, Iris comes in useful as she speaks fluent French. Iris becomes a fixture at Royaumont and good friends with one of the ambulance drivers, fellow ‘flower bird’, Violet. Iris locates her brother, but is unsuccessful in convincing him to return home.
In the modern time period, Iris receives an invitation to Royaumont’s anniversary, which piques Grace’s curiosity. Iris wants to go, but she is becoming frail. Grace has her own issues to deal with and becomes preoccupied, as Iris retreats into memories…
Sometimes with dual narrative novels, it’s difficult to remember what is happening in each time period. There’s no such problem with this book – Iris’s youthful memories keep the threads firmly entwined. The mystery surrounding Grace’s son seems a bit extraneous at first, but it becomes clear that it is an integral part of the plot. My only concern is I found it far too easy to guess what was happening to Henry and I started to look for clues (and there are a few of them) that not all is what it seems. I may just know too much about random things though!
The narrative set in Royaumont gives a completely different aspect to WWI from a female point of view. It is not congested with wounds and medicine, but is more of a social history. There is little description of the fighting itself, which suits the story well. This is a novel focusing on characters, their actions and their effects. The rippling effects of choices made long ago are evident in the conclusion, where everything turns on its head rather quickly.
This book also is a very strong portrayal of women – women running the hospital, women making decisions. Grace is a doctor herself, but is sometimes ridiculed for her actions by her male colleagues (despite them being quite correct). Grace also represents the modern woman – mother, wife, career woman and homemaker, juggling it all sometimes more successfully than others.