I grew up in a medical family, my father and brother both surgeons and my mother a nurse. My parents met while serving in WW2 and that combination of compassion and horror in the field hospitals of Europe have stayed with me ever since. In fact, my first novel A Dangerous Act of Kindness, is set during WW2. I’m also a career hypochondriac. I avoid reading about illnesses or injuries I may suffer from myself, but I am fascinated by disease and pioneering surgery, thus The Summer Fields revolves around a disease that has now been eradicated (smallpox) and pre-anaesthetic surgery, something I hope I shall never have to face.
The Summer Fields
What is my book about?
Elen Griffiths has an 18th-century superpower – she is immune to smallpox from her work with the dairy herd, but when Viscount Mordiford, heir to Duntisbourne, is struck down by the ‘red plague’, she is forced to leave her farm and nurse him. Shut away in Duntisbourne Hall she is appalled by the disease but pities Mordiford and learns to treat him. However, a far worse evil lurks in the icy corridors of the Hall, forcing Elen to flee England and join the Duke of Marlborough’s campaign against the French. Reunited with the man she loves on the morning of the Battle of Blenheim, she discovers that the pain of love is nothing compared to the pain of loss.
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The English Patient
Why this book?
My mother was a nurse travelling with the Allies during the Liberation of Italy at exactly the time this story was set, so this book has a special place in my heart. Here the nurse is Hana, caring for a badly burned patient with no name in a crumbling Italian villa. As the patient recalls a passionate love affair from his past, Hana begins to fall for Kip, a Sikh sapper working on unexploded bombs left behind by the Germans. This is a beautiful and haunting story of the way that love can survive even the awful human suffering of war.
Growing up, my brother and I were a pigeon pair, almost like twins. He was a sensitive boy who wore glasses and played the piano beautifully. Boarding school thumped all that out of him and forced him along a different path. The central character of this novel echoed this dynamic, drawing Brodie Moncur, the Scottish piano tuner, straight to my heart. Despite Brodie’s recurring bouts of tuberculosis and the violence of his bullying family, he gently pursues Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian singer, across 19th-century Europe. The passion and revenge meted out on this gentle soul cannot deaden his rapture for Lika. He knows that he is a man with limited time on his hands who is “trapped in a maddening cycle of strange unhappiness.”
Some odd 1950s social attitudes caught me by surprise when I re-read this much-loved book from my past (what are those bruises all about?). Don’t let this put you off this wonderful story of courage and hardship as Jean Paget, an ordinary woman is swept up in the Japanese invasion of Malaya, faces terrible hardships in her group of female prisoners. Starving and sick, they are helped by an Australian, Sgt Joe Harman, also a prisoner, but his kindness results in the most terrible retribution. To say more would ruin the shock of this fabulous story, but I guarantee that Joe Harman will have your heart by the end of the book.
You may know this strange story as a film, but the different narrators in this gothic tale of John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier being washed and nursed by a group of young girls in Martha Farnworth’s remote school is full of the same sexual tension I hoped to conjure up in my book. What could be more beguiling than the juxtaposition of sheltered women carrying out intimate tasks on a man weakened by injury?
I read this during my steamy adolescence. Written in the sixties, there are no love scenes, but when the plot forces heroine Nicola Ferris to curl up next to injured and extremely attractive Mark, pent-up eroticism bursts from the pages. The romance is magnified by the setting in the mountains of Crete, imbued with “the smell of the lemon-flowers, the clicking of the mill-sails and the sound of spilling water; the sunlight dappling through the leaves on the white anemones…all this seemed to rush together into a point of powerful magic, happiness striking like an arrow, with one of those sudden shocks of joy that are so physical, so precisely marked, that one knows the exact moment at which the world changed."
We think you will like
Soldier, Prisoner, Hunter, Gatherer: The Incredible True Story of Kiwi Horrie Woods, and His Battle for Survival During World War II,
When We Were Brave
if you like this list.
An epic account of Kiwi soldier, Horrie Woods, fighting the Germans in Greece and Crete to his eventual capture and incarceration in a pow camp in eastern Europe. What makes this book so unique is that the memoir was transcribed by his son Don Woods, from the actual diaries Horrie kept during his four years in captivity. A true story of survival.
This wondrous saga about a crew of mostly working-class English folk starts in Italy at the end of WWII, then roves for another three decades between a pub in London and a pensionein Florence. I love Winman’s ability to make us love her characters—and this book is packed with them—no matter their crimes and misdemeanors. In this novel, she rouses only compassion for Peg, who, thinking herself incapable of raising her five-year-old daughter, sends her off to Italy to be brought up by two men. Everything about Winman’s writing says love and humanity and hope. And if you’re into audiobooks, she reads the book herself; it is a brilliant performance.
This is a ‘going back in time’ novel, not original, but well-written and very engaging. A woman finds a photograph of a woman in an attic. She discovers the woman is an aunt no one talks about. Her crime: to fall in love and flee to Paris with a Nazi prisoner of war.
I am recommending this book because of the emotions it evoked in me, the tension throughout, and the beautiful love story that unraveled in a time of war. It has stuck with me.