Book No 27 (2015) : The Lives of Stella Bain

stella bainI used to read Anita Shreve all the time, and ‘Fortune’s Rocks’ is up there with my favourite books. However, I lost interest in her work a bit after she produced a few duds. ‘The Lives of Stella Bain‘ has restored some of my faith.

Stella is a nurse’s aide in a field hospital during WW1 and she bears daily witness to harrowing scenes of pain and suffering as she assists the doctors working to help injured soldiers. ‘Always look the patient in the eye’, she is told. But when Stella herself is badly hurt in a blast, she comes round again, but has lost her memory. Driven by an inexplicable urge to reach ‘the Admiralty’, she makes her way to London. Arriving alone, she falls ill with pneumonia, only to be taken in by Lily and August Bridge. August is a cranial surgeon but he has a keen interest in psychiatry and the work of Sigmund Freud. He also has contacts in the Admiralty. With August’s help, Stella begins to recover her memory. Only to discover that she is not called Stella Bain at all, and the life she left held as many fears for her as those of the French battlefields.

It is not very often I say this as it’s usually the other way round, but this book could have been longer! For a quickish read there are a lot of sub-plots and themes, some of which warranted deeper exploration. There were echoes of Louisa Young’s ‘My Dear I Wanted to Tell You‘ as the issue of soldiers’ facial injuries features in Shreve’s novel. One of the things I particularly liked about this book though, were the various styles of narrative, including prose and description, correspondence and the transcript of a court case. Together with the settings in France, London and Canada, the mingled styles resulted in an interesting and engaging read. Definitely recommended and if you like ‘Stella Bain’, you might want to dip into some of Shreve’s other novels. As well as ‘Fortune’s Rocks and ‘Testimony, I’ve also enjoyed ‘The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and All He Ever Wanted. I read the last of these some years ago, but scenes from it still linger in my memory; proof that when Shreve gets it right, she produces compelling, memorable fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

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