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.

Book No 32 (2014) : My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You

my dearI scribbled down the name of Louisa Young’s book after a friend I met in the supermarket car park suggested it as one of my 50:50. I’m so glad I bumped into that fellow book-worm (thanks, Sheila!) as this WW1 novel turned out to be a well written, haunting read.

Riley Purefoy is not a privileged lad. But he’s bright, artistic and wants to better himself. When the Waveneys, a bohemian London family, adopt Riley as a kind of pet, it is not long before he is taken in by artist Sir Alfred. Riley has already fallen for Nadine Waveney, but her mother disapproves of the match and determines to keep the young soul mates apart. As WW1 breaks out, Riley signs up, tries to believe he might be able to forget Nadine. Separated by the war, communication is stilted and uncertain to begin with, but over time the lovers’ letters become more meaningful. Whilst on leave from their respective duties (Nadine is by this time a nurse), the couple spends time together. It seems as if their love has a future and they long for peace. However, when Riley is sent back to England to recover from serious facial injuries, devotion is tested to the limit.

Young’s prose is neither overly descriptive nor effusive, yet she nevertheless succeeds in creating believable characters whose fates really drew me in. There are a number of interesting sub-plots, including a wife’s obsession with cosmetic procedures and Riley’s necessary surgery. Sensitive portrayals of shell-shock and the after-effects of war, on both serving personnel and those who waited at home, add depth to this touching novel. One critic has called ‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ “Birdsong for the new millenium“, drawing a comparison with Sebastian Faulks’ epic novel. Actually, I can’t agree with that as I think Faulks is a far more accomplished writer – having said that, if you do enjoy the L.Young book, I am almost certain you would be equally (if not more) entralled with ‘Birdsong’.