Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
British nurse Claire Nightingale is stationed aboard a hospital ship just off the coast of Gallipoli during the first World War. There she meets Australian Light Horseman Jamie Wren when Jamie carries his dying mate to the beach in an attempt to get him on board the ship and to safety. Despite the violence of their surroundings and the fact they will be separated with no assurance of ever seeing each other again, they fall in love.
When they are torn apart, Jamie and Claire make a pact – they will meet at a certain spot on the first April Fools Day after the end of the war. If both of them are still physically able, they will be there. Even when Claire is told that Jamie has been killed after a terrible injury, she refuses to believe it. After the end of the war, she searches for him, her only clue being a prayer book Jamie was given by a Turkish soldier during a ceasefire. Jamie had made a promise to return it to the soldier’s father and Claire decides to honour that promise while she waits for April and to see whether or not Jamie will make it to their meeting place.
In Turkey, Claire is surprised with the connection she feels with the father of that Turk soldier. He’s a courteous, cultured man and Claire feels that perhaps, in another lifetime, she could have made the choice to stay with him, despite their age differences and the divides in their culture. But Jamie still holds her heart and she owes it to him and that love to journey back to England for April the 1st, to wait and see if he is able to come to her. Is Jamie still alive? And if so, will he be waiting for her on that afternoon or is she doomed to face heartbreak once again?
Not long ago, I made a bit of a resolution to read more about Gallipoli, both in fiction and also with non-fiction as I realised I’d read hardly anything set there. And with the 100th anniversary of the landing coming next year it seems a good time to really get into books that feature Gallipoli in any way. This book opens with Gallipoli – Jamie is with the Light Horseman Brigade, without a horse but instead having been deployed as a ground soldier, taking turns behind the sniper rifle. Claire is a nurse, stationed on a ship just off the coast. They evacuate the seriously injured soldiers to Egypt and the Allied hospitals set up in that area.
Claire is frustrated, partially at the futility of her task and the war and also at the system or lack thereof in terms of being able to triage the injured soldiers on the battleground and trying to prioritise those that need their assistance on the ship the most. She begs leave from the Matron to go to the beach and attempt to set up a system and it’s there she meets Jamie, who has carried the body of his dying friend over his shoulder down the cliffs to the beach. They spend a little time together, especially when Jamie makes his way to the ship and namedrops Claire to get ahead of the queue. She is able to fix up his injuries and during those small interactions, the two of them fall deeply in love.
I think I could well understand the temptation of an instant love, during such a time and place. Jamie and Claire both see horrible things all day, every day. The desire to see a little beauty, experience a little goodness, would be powerful. They’re alone really – Claire doesn’t have any family left and Jamie has left his on the other side of the world to go and fight in the war. Claire has a tendency towards the melancholy, or negative. She laments before she meets Jamie that if something were to happen to her in the war, there’s no one to inform – no one would care. Jamie has a large family who love him and would grieve him but he was unsatisfied there. He didn’t love his girl at home the way that he falls in love with Claire. For both of them, it’s an immediate and powerful force, something that becomes their driving motivation. Even after Claire is told that Jamie has been lost, there are people that convince her she’s not to give up – in a war of this size, nothing is certain unless you see it yourself. And so she continues to hope, throughout the rest of the war and then in the fragile peace afterwards, before their deadline of April 1st.
I did really enjoy this book, I liked both Jamie and Claire. Claire was strong and very capable and Jamie was fun and an easy going laidback kind of country Aussie guy. I loved their scenes together and the strong connection that the two formed in such an unlikely place. I also enjoyed Claire’s trip to Turkey and her learning of the customs, especially the relationship she cultivated with several of the women there. I’m not sure the strange bond between her and the father of the fallen Turk soldier really worked for me, it felt like it was taking too much away from Jamie and the fact that her deadline to meet him was drawing closer. I will say however that the tension was built extremely well toward the end of the novel, where Claire is arriving at their meeting place.
Another very engrossing read from Fiona McIntosh, I keep meaning to get to those books by her that I haven’t yet read. She always provides a very solid and entertaining story, something that keeps the reader hooked from beginning until end.
Book #249 of 2014
Nightingale is book #91 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014