My thanks go out to the lovely Sarah, representing publisher Bookouture, for securing me a spot on this ‘Books On Tour’ journey.
As ever, additional thanks go out to NetGalley, for their excellent download and review service.
THE SEA NURSES
The young nurse ran across the wooden deck, her feet skidding. She spotted an injured young man clinging to the ship’s rail, his eyes wide with terror. She could see the water rushing up to meet them. ‘We need to jump!’ she screamed. In that moment, a wave washed over them. She lunged forward to grab his hand, but she was a second too slow. Somewhere, deep inside the vessel, came a loud crack. The hospital ship was breaking apart…
1914. Evie Munro is a Scottish fisher girl, working the herring season from Wick to Great Yarmouth. For Evie, every day is the same – gutting fish at the docks, shoulder-to-shoulder with her friends, followed by fresh bread, a warm whiskey toddy and an early night.
But when Germany declares war on Britain, everything changes.
As her village begins to empty of young men, Evie’s life is marked by a heart-breaking tragedy at home. Her happiness destroyed, she vows to join the war effort as an army nurse, caring for wounded soldiers on the imposing hospital ship Britannic.
But as the war rages on and the ship comes under direct fire, Evie’s courage is put to the ultimate test. Can Evie and the nurses of the HMHS Britannic save the day and heal the patients in their care? Or will her life become one more casualty in Britain’s heroic fight for freedom?
Kate Eastham trained as a nurse in the late 1970s and enjoyed a long career before a change in circumstance meant that she needed to be a full time carer for her partner.
Determined to make the most of this new role ‘working from home’ she cleared a space at the kitchen table for a pile of books and a writing pad and started to make notes on the history of nursing. Inspired by the achievements of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole during the Crimean War she was also captured by the sheer grit and determination of other ‘ordinary women’ whose voices from the past are seldom heard. An idea for a novel was born and her first book, Miss Nightingale’s Nurses, was published by Penguin in 2018, closely followed by three more in the series.
Having thought that she would never find anything to replace the work in nursing that she loved, she is now equally immersed in her writing, drawing on years of experience and the stories told by so many patients. With her passion for history, Kate aims to continue making visible the lives of ordinary yet extraordinary women from the past.
Her current fiction is set during the World Wars and will be published by Bookouture.
“Writing the horrors of war from a nurse’s perspective, I am in awe of those women and men who have served throughout time and across the world. I hope that The Sea Nurses can convey some of that experience and make it more accessible to a wider audience”
A short extract from ‘A letter From Kate’, my inspiration for The Sea Nurses, which can be found at the end of the book – Not to be missed, it’s an amazing read!
HMHS BRITANNIC, THE AEGEAN SEA, NOVEMBER 1916
A nurse ran towards the deserted dining room, her feet skidding on the wooden deck as the sip continued to tilt into the sea. An untethered wheelchair hurtled towards her; she leapt out of the way, grabbing hold of a deck bench to stop herself from falling. The ship heaved and slanted even further. Panting, she reached up with one hand to rip off her starched cap which had slipped forward, obscuring her vision. She felt something shift beneath her and somewhere, deep inside the vessel came a loud crack that sounded like an explosion. The hospital ship was breaking apart.
CHAPTER ONE – TWO YEARS EARLIER
RMS OLYMPIC, AUGUST 1914
Iris Purefoy closed the door to the first-class stateroom with a firm click. She needed to find a piece of chicken for Miss Amelia Duchamp’s Pekinese lapdog or there would be hell to pay. Miss Duchamp had embarked at Cherbourg already impatient because her personal maid had fallen ill. Iris was so busy, it irked her to be delayed by the needs of a dog, but if she didn’t fulfil Miss Duchamp’s request quickly it would cost her even more time. The lapdog had guzzled lamb till it came out of his ears on the outbound voyage from New York in the spring, but now Miss Duchamp had declared that he simply could not have red meat. Chicken would have to be found.
“Infuriatingly, she had never been attracted to any other man so strongly before. Their instant connection vibrated between them like a plucked string”
“As she watched Sam stride away down the deck, it felt as if something had shifted beneath her feet. All the crew and passengers waking up this morning would be entering a new world. iris pressed a hand to her chest and glanced down to check that her apron was straight. ‘All we can do is soldier on,’ she said out loud, weighing the coffee cup in her hand before she started to walk briskly along the deck, already forming in her head the exact words that she would use to tell Roisin about the declaration of war”
“She’d known this pain before, as a child when her daddy died, and then it had come in a different form when she lost her mammy to cancer. But that didn’t mean she understood it, or that she was any better equipped to deal with the savagery of it. On the contrary, as she lay there groaning with a visceral pain, feeling scoured out inside, it seemed to get worse and worse each time”
“At moments like these, Iris felt overwhelmed by grief and frustration. How could it be right to keep throwing young men’s lives away? The war was like an insatiable monster that they were all servicing – it seemed grotesque”
“It was almost November and the leaves were starting to fall – before the war, she’d loved the autumn colours, going for a walk with a nip in the air. But now it meant that the soldiers would be covered in mud, suffering frostbite, more at risk of developing horrible infection, all of it adding to their misery. As the leaves drifted down, it made her feel sad, mournful, the seasons were still turning and the menace of war seemed unstoppable”
“Hearing a sound, she straightened up and glanced behind her. She was sure she’d heard a voice, and it had sounded familiar. Her skin began to tingle with sensation. There was no one there. Strange. Maybe it was her mind playing tricks, but this had happened to her before when she was crossing the Atlantic. Feeling the reassuring weight of the ruby necklace against her skin she gripped the rail to ground herself. Drawing in another deep breath of sea air to steady the full beat of her heart, she remembered what Francine often said about being surrounded by those who had passed and learning to live with them”
“Through the dark days of the war, they must stay strong”
I have to admit that I can’t remember the last time I read a WWI book, so it took a while to adjust to the narrative and dialogue surrounding the alternative style of combat, to that waged in subsequent warfare stories, which are my more usual reading genres. However, regardless of the time or place war has always been a great leveller and class has no place within its ranks. Differences need to be put aside and people have to be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder for the common good and with the singular aim of defeating the enemy and watching the back of your fellow men and women. And so are born tales such as this, of strong and enduring friendships, forged against all the odds, out of necessity and in the face of tremendous adversity.
Whilst not upper class by any stretch of the imagination, a well educated Iris, is an assistant medic and senior stewardess, in the first class section of a trans Atlantic cruise liner. Evie, who is destined to cross paths with Iris, comes from more humble beginnings and with a group of other women, travels down from Scotland to Great Yarmouth each year, for the herring season, where she guts and packs the catch, fresh on the quayside. The one thing the girls have in common, is that they are orphans of a similar age and they have also both recently discovered a first time romantic interest, although the hardships of life will end one relationship and the trials of war the other. Iris is as quiet and reserved, as Evie is garrulous and enthusiastic. Iris has had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of one of her wealthy first class clients, whilst Evie has the company of good friends and relatives to turn to in her hour of need.
With the outbreak of war, all ships are requisitioned by the government, with many being converted to hospital ships and it is an inherent fascination with the sea, which finds Iris and Evie and some of Evie’s fellow herring packers, enlisting as nurses. Iris undoubtedly has the most relevant qualifications, so she finds herself trying to manage a team of four enthusiastic girls, although she discovers all too soon, that Evie’s renowned expertise with the gutting knife, is easily re-purposed to make her equally adept with a surgical scalpel and her help becomes invaluable, as does that of all their fellow nursing recruits.
Battle fatigue from numerous Mediterranean rescue missions, is made even more unutterably and unbearably sad by the sinking of The Britannic, with Iris and a few of her fellow survivors witness to the terrible deaths of many of the unfortunate crew members not lucky enough to make it to the safety of the lifeboats. After a protracted rescue mission, Iris is delighted to discover that Evie also made it to safety and is busy working alongside ships surgeon, Dr Mayhew, patching up both wounded soldiers and medics alike. Several of the nurses, including Evie and Iris, decide that they deserve some time ashore, working in a military hospital on dry land. It is whilst here that Evie makes two discoveries which will make her heart sing and change her life forever, although she must first release the pent up emotion and guilt she has carried inside her for so long. For Iris, a face from the past offers her a few more weeks of pure joy, before happiness is once again plucked from her grasp, leaving her grieving and alone.
When war is finally over, Iris and Evie know that they will always remain firm friends, albeit from a distance. A trip to New York leaves Iris the beneficiary of some unexpected generosity from her pre-war cruising client and she is destined to spend much of her time living in Paris, with an annual trip to the USA to visit both her benefactor and Evie, who has now also made that country her temporary home. For Iris, love has always been that illusive rainbow she has been searching for, but she has never given up hope…
This story began and ended with Iris!
This multi-layered, intense and atmospheric story, is completely immersive and memorable. It highlights both the fragility and resilience of the human mind, and uncovers the trauma of grief and loss and the long term effects it can have on mental health, in what we would now recognise as PTSD. There are several unexpectedly intense and emotional twists in this highly textured storyline, which is perceptive, intuitive, often raw and passionate, yet profoundly touching. Well structured and sign-posted, the timeline was easy to follow, keeping everything seamless and well-paced. The fluent writing was poignant and beautifully descriptive, evoking a really strong sense of time and place, no matter whereabouts the theatre of action was, as this storyline enjoyed a very large and diverse footprint – perfect for all us ‘armchair travellers’. Personally, and this is simply because I know the area and its history so well, the scenes which took place in and around Netley Hospital in Southampton, resonated the most.
The two principal characters of Iris and Evie, were wonderfully developed and drawn, detailed to the point where I could visualise them leaning on the ship’s rail at the end of a long day enjoying a final smoke and a nip of something stronger than water, to dull the memories of the suffering they have seen that day; eavesdropping on their conversations, and almost knowing what they were thinking and how they were going to react in any given situation, both professionally and personally. Along with the wider cast of characters, the overall dynamics and synergy between them all, makes them completely investable, genuine and authentic in their individual roles, as they are given a generous and strong voice with which to tell their courageous story of resilience over adversity. They represent a complex jigsaw of vulnerable human emotions, which are laid bare when the fragility of the lines between life and death, defeat and survival, love and hate, trust and duplicity, the frailty of the human mind and indeed their very existence, are drawn. However a raw addictive passion and the will to survive, overcomes all the odds stacked against them, making them stronger, determined to be true to themselves, and more united as time goes on.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This story definitely managed to evoke all those feelings, so I can only recommend that you read The Sea Nurses for yourself and see where your journey leads you!
A complimentary kindle download of this book for review, was made available by the publisher and supplied by NetGalley.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!