Insight into how we cope in a crisis

Willie Campbell reviews "Lives we Leave Behind".

LIVES WE LEAVE BEHIND
Maxine Alterio
Penguin

When some significant shift or marker in our lives happens, we become in a sense new people, shaped by both the event and our reaction to it. We can never quite return to the life we had before.

Dunedin novelist Maxine Alterio takes serving as a nurse in action in World War 1 as the event and explores the impact it has on the lives of those nurses.

Alterio's two main characters, both young women from Southland, are markedly different in both experience and temperament.

Sister Addie Harrington is from a Presbyterian family who believe "we can rise above sin". She is cautious, thoughtful and considered, inclined to obey the rules.

Her room-mate, Sister Meg Dutton, was a child in a household where her mother had frequent spells away from home, and her aunt and uncle were the secure and predictable presence.

She is adventurous, out for whatever fun can be had and blessed with a smile and mischievous sense of humour. She is not pleased to have landed "Miss Goody Two Shoes" as her companion.

The relationship that develops between these two, their nursing colleagues and the men involved with the hospital as staff and patients is drawn with delicacy and insight.

Alterio uses shifts in pace, differing lengths of paragraphs and conversation to promote interest in both the surrounding action and the human needs that are revealed in response to it. She highlights familiar behavioural patterns that are deployed to create some sense of security in a turbulent environment.

The pace hastens to the projected move to Salonika on a troopship, the Marquette. The description of the ensuing drama as the ship is torpedoed and evacuated is compelling.

During the disaster, Meg and Addie realise a depth of affection for each other and the reciprocal value each has come to possess.

The male voice is ever present in the device of a chorus-like reflection from identifiable men - uncles, lovers, patients, orderlies, surgeons - between chapters. It provides both a mirror and an anchor in contrast to the ever-changing activity of the characters. A very real male presence is there for both women.

Meg, with her risk-taking and clasp-all-experiences temperament, has a very instant and explosive relationship with an English surgeon. They both take many risks in order to spend time together and live in that heightened state of anticipation and singlemindedness.

Addie, in contrast, develops over time a very secure and enduring affection for Edward. Her father in his reflection notes "I can tell that my Adelina has come out of her shell".

This is a finely crafted novel that gives a depth of insight into human needs and responses in times of crisis.

It elicits both a tear and a smile as it portrays women with strength and determination who have been hidden in our history. Maxine Alterio has provided also a very useful author's note and bibliography to help further explore the lives of such nurses.

Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator.