Title: The Desert Nurse
Author: Pamela Hart
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 10th July 2018
Synopsis: Amid the Australian Army hospitals of World War I Egypt, two deeply determined individuals find the resilience of their love tested to its limits
It’s 1911, and 21-year-old Evelyn Northey desperately wants to become a doctor. Her father forbids it, withholding the inheritance that would allow her to attend university. At the outbreak of World War I, Evelyn disobeys her father, enlisting as an army nurse bound for Egypt and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Under the blazing desert sun, Evelyn develops feelings for polio survivor Dr William Brent, who believes his disability makes him unfit to marry. For Evelyn, still pursuing her goal of studying medicine, a man has no place in her future. For two such self-reliant people, relying on someone else for happiness may be the hardest challenge of all.
From the casualty tents, the fever wards and the operating theatres of the palace; through the streets of Cairo during Ramadan, to the parched desert and the grim realities of war, Pamela Hart, beloved bestselling Australian author of THE WAR BRIDE, tells the heart-wrenching story of four years that changed the world forever.
In 1911, Evelyn Northey has just turned twenty-one – the age she believes she will receive her inheritance from her long-dead mother and be able to go out into the world and make her own life, and her own decisions – away from the controlling home of her father. When she finds the conditions of the will – and her father’s ruling – prohibit this – she spends the next three years training to be a nurse in secret – a step towards her goal to becoming a doctor.
When war breaks out in 1914 in Europe, she enlists as a nurse in the army – and is sent to Egypt, and the tragic, and disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Prior to her departure, she meets Dr William Brent at her physical assessment, a polio survivor whose disability has prevented him from enlisting and heading to the battlefront – yet he finds that he is able to serve in another way – in the hospitals of Egypt and Cairo with Evelyn.
Together and apart – they work in casualty wards, fever tents and the operating theatres, and William tutors Evelyn in Latin and medicine, preparing her for her plans to attend medical school in Edinburgh. Through four years of war, Evelyn and William drift in and out of each other’s lives, their friendship and relationship develop along the way, with the ups and downs of life in war time. Both are determined to forge their own paths and not be reliant on another – Evelyn wanting to become a doctor, which means making sacrifices in her life – marriage, a family – to achieve her dreams, whilst William is hesitant to enter into a close relationship with anyone and burden them with having to care for him later in life due to his disability. But the friendship between William and Evelyn that blossoms into more is based on respect and understanding for each other.
Pamela Hart again positions a woman in a man’s world- that of war, and this time, the medical world – and gives her a voice that the doctors and matrons she works with respect – especially William and Dr Fanous, who were like a balm to Evelyn’s harsh father. This contrast showed the spectrum of attitudes based on gender during this time, and I felt that poor Evelyn was treated quite unfairly by her father at the start of the novel, and through her stories of what had happened after her mother’s death – all of which was dealt with very well, and I enjoyed William’s response and the way he made sure he tried not to be like this – a true friend.
The historical backdrop to the novel was made more authentic with the inclusion of the real desert nurses – Evelyn and Hannah were the only fictional ones in Pamela’s story, and her inclusion of Connie Keys, Selina (Lil) MacKenzie, Alice Ross-King, Mabel Pilkington, and Dr Agnes Bennett – the first female doctor in the British Army who was in charge of the hospitals in the Serbian theatre of war. In doing this, Pamela has ensured the recognition of what these women did during four awful years for the world and for the Anzacs who left their homes in Australia to assist Britain against Germany – more information on these women can be found on Pamela’s author website.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. The historical story, and Evelyn’s story and journey towards independence were my favourites, with the touch of romance on the side, which added to the story, and gave it a touch of humanity and hope amidst the death and destruction of World War I. Equally enjoyable were the inclusion of Rebecca Quinn and her brother, Linus from A Letter from Italy as good friends of Evelyn and her brother, Harry. Seeing two women who wanted more than what was expected of them was wonderful. Also, having a main character with a disability, who didn’t let it stop him doing what he set his mind to, was excellent to see as well. William didn’t let his polio stop him, nor did Evelyn let his disability colour her perspective of him – rather, she respected him and looked out for him when necessary, just as he did for her. An excellent representation.
A wonderful read that evokes the gravitas of war, nursing and expectations of women in the early twentieth century alongside a love story that evolves throughout the novel to reach the conclusion readers hoped for.