In brief: A combination of memoir and look at the nurses who were involved with the Guinea Pig Club in World War II.
The good: Interesting to learn more about Archibald McIndoe, his techniques and how he assisted many men who were burned during the war.
The not-so-good: The combination of memoir and history didn’t work for me. Errors at the end of the book made me question what I’d read.
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Setting: England, Australia
I received this book through Goodreads’ First Reads programme, thank you to Fremantle Press for the copy. It’s a book that I probably wouldn’t have bought, but borrowed from the library. I have an interest in the day to day life during World War II (as my blog readers would have guessed) and I was looking forward to it. Like many other people, I’ve heard of the Guinea Pig club. To be a member, you had to be burned and treated by Archibald McIndoe, pioneering plastic surgeon. These men (and a few women) had horrific burned that made their features grotesque to many. However, McIndoe not only helped to bring function back into burned areas but made the area around his hospital a safe haven for the Guinea Pigs. How did he do this? By enlisting the help of the townspeople to treat them as they were exactly the same as everyone else and having an easy going, jovial and naughty at times feeling in the ward.
This is where Liz Bryski’s personal link to the Guinea Pigs comes in. As a child, she remembers being terrified by the Guinea Pigs. Many years later, she returns to her hometown to speak with not only the Guinea Pigs, but those who looked after them – the nurses. She interviews both groups and encounters a range of emotions and thoughts relating back to that time. She also attends what is likely to be the last reunion of the Guinea Pigs. Some of the Guinea Pigs have remained heavily involved with the club, supporting each over in emotional times and also in getting a job. Others have distanced themselves (one gentleman was worried that he may have been shunned for being gay). For the nurses, the gamut of emotions is even wider. The men were encouraged to flirt with the nurses and a little time in the broom cupboard was not frowned upon. How did these women feel? Some didn’t mind. Some felt it was part of the war duty. Some felt distinctly uncomfortable.
Byrski’s interviews and history of the Guinea Pigs is interspersed with her own history and personal reflections. I wasn’t prepared for this on reading the blurb – I thought this was more of a straightforward history. I found just as I was getting interested in the story, it would move back to Byrski’s own memories. I felt that the last chapters, where Byrski talks about her own troubles in getting the book written and becoming ill detracted from the focus of the book. However, I got incredibly frustrated on page 204 by a factual error where Byrski states she contracted the ‘Legionella virus’. Legionella is not a virus, it’s a class of Gram-negative bacteria. Byrski also states she ‘probably acquired it on the flight to London’ which is quite unlikely given that Legionella
tends to thrive in stagnant water (think cooling towers). Also, the most common way of contracting Legionella in Western Australia (where Byrski resides) is through potting mix, soil and compost (Legionella longbeachae). After this, I wasn’t too sure who or what to believe.
I wish I could say I enjoyed this more, but I didn’t. The history parts were interesting, but due to the errors at the end, the book just didn’t work for me.