Title: The War Nurses
Author: Anthea Hodgson
Published: 12th April 2023, Michael Joseph
Status: Read April 2023 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia
Inspired by the experiences of Australian nurses, including the author’s great aunt, in Singapore during WWII, The War Nurses is a remarkable and moving story of courage, tragedy and friendship from Anthea Hodgson.
It’s 1941 when the Queen Mary sets sail carrying members of Australia’s armed forces overseas. Among them are volunteer enlisted nurses Margot, Beth, Lola, and Minnie, bunk mates who become friends on their journey. Stationed in Singapore, the women tend to the allied forces, proud to be of service, but they are forced to flee when the Japanese invade the island barely a year later. Herded onto the Vyner Brooke along with 60 other Australian nurses, over a hundred injured soldiers and dozens of expat evacuees, mostly women and children, the ship attempts an escape only to be strafed with bombs in the Bangka Strait.
The fate of Hodgson’s four heroines, and their fellow survivors, illuminate those of their real-life counterparts. Around 150 people survived the sinking of the ship and made their way to the closest shore clinging to rafts and debris. Tragically around fifty met their death on Radji Beach, among them 22 Australian nurses, at the hands of a party of Japanese soldiers, except for one lucky escapee. The rest of the survivors were captured, separated by gender, and then interned in camps until the war ended in 1945. Not all lived to be released.
I was already broadly familiar with the events on Bangka Island but the perspectives of the author’s characters create a sense of immersion in the ordeal. Written with genuine respect, compassion and empathy for the people on whom Hodgson’s characters are based, Margot, Beth, Lola, and Minnie are fully realised amalgamations. Hodgson relates how they endure their bleak circumstances with dignity, loyalty, wit, resourcefulness and determination.
As Hodgson later notes, many of the incidents in the story that seem unbelievable or exaggerated, are actually true. It’s a harrowing tale that brought me to tears more than once. That anyone survived, not just physically, seems almost a miracle. Yet the horror is tempered by warm and inspiring moments of friendship and support, small rebellions, and even a touch of romance.
A compelling novel, The War Nurses is a heartfelt and deserved tribute to the 65 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service who died and survived the sinking of Vyner Brooke.
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3 thoughts on “Review: The War Nurses by Anthea Hodgson”
Great review, Shelleyrae. I may have to search this one out.
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This sounds like an exceptional book and it’s going on my TBR list right now. Thank you
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