In brief: The story of Cora, a nurse at Harefield Hospital in England during World War I and Jessie, a woman in the village of Harefield.
The good: Very meticulously researched.
The not-so-good: Some chapters seemed a little bit out of place.
Why I chose it: Enjoy Victoria Purman’s novels. Thanks to Harlequin for the copy.
Publisher: HQ (Harlequin)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Victoria Purman always writes well researched novels, whether they be historical fiction on war or immigration or contemporary romance. The Nurses’ War is a hefty novel at nearly 600 pages and demonstrates Purman’s commitment to research, in particular the Australian hospital at Harefield, England during the first world war. Told from the perspective of two characters, one a nurse and the other a villager, the story gets into the depths of the horrors of war and later, pandemic. But there are also happy moments of love and friendship.
Cora is a nurse from Adelaide who decides to join the war effort and is sent as one of the initial nurses to Harefield, a village in England not too far from London. There, she and the other nurses establish a hospital for wounded Australian soldiers returning from the front. Initially designed to be relatively small, the hospital grows and grows during the war until it has more than a thousand patients. For the majority of the nurses, it’s their first time overseas and first time managing battlefield wounds. There are happy moments, but some sad moments too as soldiers are admitted with injuries that can’t be healed, both physical and mental. As the war progresses, it takes a toll on Cora and her colleagues’ mental health too, especially as the ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic enters the hospital. None of the staff come out of the hospital the same person after the war. In comparison, Jessie lives in the nearby village of Harefield and works with her mother as a seamstress. She’s always been on the fringe of the village due to her brother’s disabilities but working at Harefield as a volunteer helps her to come out of her shell. She also finds romance with an Australian soldier, Bert, but love never runs smoothly when there’s a war on.
The story is revealed through Cora and Jessie’s eyes. For much of the early parts of the novel, Cora and Jessie’s lives are quite separate. It is a little bit disjointed to move from one to the other, but it was also nice to have the spotlight shift from the war to a young woman growing up in the early part of the twentieth century. There were some chapters that didn’t quite fit – for example, when Cora goes to vote on conscription. It didn’t seem to fit with the narrative at the time and could have easily been left out (but I kind of like the historical reference). However, it’s the end of the novel that was the most powerful for me. Cora and her colleagues are fed up with everything – the war, the weather and not knowing when they can go home and what it will be like. Then the influenza pandemic hits Harefield and everything becomes so much scarier and uncertain. The nurses are wearing masks and seeing the loss of their colleagues and patients. In some ways, it’s similar to what we are seeing now with the COVID-19 pandemic. It was comforting to know that the hospital staff felt the same, but it was devastating as a reader to see such an unfair end to what the hospital staff has worked so tirelessly on.
Overall, The Nurses’ War is a meticulously researched novel that goes into detail of the experiences of an Australian war hospital with strong, likable female characters.