Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters and Australian nurses in 1914. They are divided by old grudges and a new crime. The older Naomi deserted their home in the bush for a career in Sydney, leaving Sally stuck there with their parents. More recently, their mother was struck down with cervical cancer and suffered terribly. Sally stole enough morphine from her own hospital to help her mother die, but one day after Naomi arrived, Sally found their mother dead and the drugs gone. Sally feels guilt at her part of the crime and resentment that Naomi could do what she could not.
There is a fervor in Australia for the war, so both women decide independently to volunteer as nurses. They set out by ship for Egypt, then to serve on a hospital ship off Gallipoli, and finally to France.
This novel shows extensive research into the conditions of World War I for nurses, and of their treatment. Although by and large they receive respect, that is not always the case. In an incident based on a true event, their hospital ship Archimedes is employed for one mission as a troop carrier, its red crosses blacked out. It is torpedoed and the survivors, including Sally and Naomi, wait in the water clinging to a raft for hours for rescue. During this traumatic wait, one soldier after another simply lets go.
After the nurses are rescued, they are put to work in a hospital on Lemnos, where the officer in charge sees no use for them and lets the orderlies treat them with disrespect. All their possessions lost, they are given local peasant dresses to wear instead of uniforms. Eventually, an orderly rapes one of the nurses and after a perfunctory investigation, gets off lightly.
The adventures of the sisters and their friends are indeed interesting and provide a different view of the war. With the few of Keneally’s books that I have read, Schindler’s List being the most well known, I have felt a certain distance from events and characters. This book is no exception, but at the same time I wanted to see what would happen.
Although told in a straightforward limited third-person narrative that moves between the point of view of the two women, Keneally offers up an alternate ending. It is not one we can choose between, but one where he tells us what might have happened and then tells us what did happen. The ending brought tears to my eyes but also seemed a little like a trick.