Willie Campbell reviews
"Lives we Leave Behind".
LIVES WE LEAVE BEHIND
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
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
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
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
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.