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This is a wonderful book about love, achievement, sorrows and secrets, focusing on the lives of some very strong women, both in the past and the present. It was an emotional roller-coaster which left me drained but uplifted.
Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl weaves a compelling story of love, achievement, danger, friendship, family and memories from WWI France to contemporary Australia. Iris Crane is now in her late 80's and her life is filled with memories of her early times, especially of her brother Tom and her time as a nurse at a hospital in France during WWI. Her current life centres on Grace, her granddaughter, who Iris brought up when her mother Rose died in childbirth. Grace is an Obstetrician with a hectic life balancing the needs of a family of 3 small children with the demands of her profession.
In 1914 Iris travelled to France to find her 15 year old brother who had lied about his age and enlisted in the Australian army. Already trained as a nurse, in order to find Tom she volunteers to work in a hospital in France. On her way, 21 year old Iris meets charismatic Frances Ivens, a doctor who is setting up a field hospital to be run by women in the old abbey of Royaumont, north of Paris. Under the spell of Frances, Iris decides to work at Royaumont where she comes of age in an environment of loving companionship, hardship and the horrors of war which test her capabilities and strengths to the limit.
At Royaumont she meets the vivacious and outgoing Violet and their friendship and relationship decide the rest of Iris's life. In the present, one day Iris receives a letter from Violet, now in her 90's, to come to Royaumont again for a final reunion. This once again triggers her memories of the past and makes her face up once again to the secrets of her relationship with Violet and her brother Tom.
MacColl's well researched descriptions of life at Royaumont during the Great War are insightful and atmospheric. By moving from memories and descriptions of the past to the present day she builds a personal and family drama of almost epic proportions. It is not really a book with strong feminist messages, but it firmly addresses the challenges that women face both at the beginning of the century and in the present day.