Lives we leave behind is the latest novel by Maxine Alterio. Maxine is a principle lecturer at Otago Polytechnic, in Dunedin, New Zealand and is extremely well known in academic circles for her work on reflective practice and story telling. I have used her academic work extensively in my own studies, but this is the first time I have read any of her fiction.
Lives we leave behind is the story of two New Zealand nurses, Meg Dutton and Addie Harrington, who travel from New Zealand as young, naive, Kiwi girls seeking adventure, and wanting to do their bit to help "the boys" in the First World War. They are thrown together as they share a berth on the hospital ship Maheno, which takes them to Egypt for their first posting. At first it looks like they will never have anything in common. Addie disapproves of Meg's frivolous approach to life, whilst Meg thinks Addie is a stick in the mud. But the horrors of war and their own personal traumas forms a deep and abiding friendship.
The story of Addie and Meg is very engaging, especially as Meg falls in love with a British surgeon, Wallace Madison. You just know it's going to end in tears, but keep hoping that Meg gets her happy-ever-after. Addie has her own romantic challenges as the men in her life are permanently changed by both physical and psychological impacts of war.
However, for all the personal stories that thread themselves through this book to entertain us, it is the background history and detail that captured my attention, which I feel is the real strength of this book. Alterio has done an amazing job of researching the experiences of Kiwi nurses in the First World War. The use of language, historical fact and medical details transport you firstly to the hot, stinking military hospitals in Egypt to the freezing battlegrounds in France. Being a nurse myself, and having a great interest in history, I can attest to the authenticity of Alterio's writing, which is extremely easy to follow, and doesn't bog you down with detail. Yet at the same time, little touches here and there alert you to the amount of research that Alterio has carried out.
I highly recommend this book which not only entertains but also educates, and brings the reader's attention to the dedication and bravery of these unsung heroines.