Lives We Leave Behind, by Maxine Alterio (Penguin, 2012), 282 pp., $38.
Next year marks the centenary of what has alternately been known as the Great War, the European War, or ‘the war to end all wars.’ The most familiar term is the First World War (WWI), with its embedded reminder that an even worse war would hit just two decades later. But while plenty of eye-witnesses to WWII live to tell the tale, the vast majority of survivors from WWI are now dead. Historical fiction is able to bridge the loss of real-life voices by offering their fictional approximation. In this vein, Maxine Alterio’s Lives We Leave Behind marries invented characters with exhaustive research to represent the experiences of a group of volunteer New Zealand nurses during the First World War.
The jilted narration of the novel — chopped into parts, chapters, then sections, with additional interludes between the chapters —reiterates the gaps in historiography of the war. The epigraph, attributed to Catherine Black, knits all the threads together: ‘You could not go through the things we went through, see the things we saw, and remain the same. You went into it young and light-hearted. You came out older than any span of years would make you.’ Black’s use of the second-person, and her vague terminology, creates narrative distance between the reader and herself, the witness of those unmentionable ‘things’ of war.
The same sense of belatedness permeates Alterio’s text. Events begin in 1915, well after war’s outbreak. During the first third of the novel, very little happens at all. The nurses seem to travel from colonial outpost to colonial outpost, engaging in activities which anticipate the remembrance tourism of Gallipoli, or what Siegfried Sassoon called the ‘nameless names’ at New Menin Gate. There is boredom and exoticism: ‘Iris was harping on about writing a story on the perils of dirty water for their nursing magazine, Kai Tiaki. No one at home would read it. Everyone wanted tales about pyramids.’ Only when the troopship on which the nurses travel is torpedoed do we finally plunge with the characters into the bloody heart of the matter.
WWI was the first real industrial war. Nurses had to function as machines of a kind: barely eating, barely sleeping automatons. As Alterio shows, a twenty-hour shift demanded the suspension of all thought and feeling. Each nurse is expected to conquer her natural repulsion to the mangled, mutilated ‘things’ before her. ‘The moment she applied a lint pad to a gash in his shoulder, he raised his head and coughed. As she slipped her arms under his back to support him, he vomited up blood. When she lowered him back down, a clump of matted brown hair came away in her hand, tissue attached. There was no time to compose herself. The next fellow had an unsightly chest wound and, beside him, the leg of another chap was open to the bone.’
Unsurprisingly, the fully-limbed, ‘healthy’ female body of the nurse becomes the site onto which men project their fears and aspirations. One patient declares to Addie, ‘“You have a fine set of bones.”’She also discovers a Peeping Tom lurking as she bathes in the nurses’ private area. In the next interlude, the man justifies his spying by juxtaposing the exposed body of the (fallen) soldier alongside the exposed body of the (recumbent) nurse: ‘A month before I copped it in the knee, I trod on a bloated belly. It burst open, covered me with muck. Give me a bare-breasted nurse any day.’ The Italian dressmaker is the only one who finds flaws with the women’s bodies.
The status of the nurse hovers on the threshold between the civilian and the soldier: generally protected from direct attack, but close-up witnesses to the horrors of No Man’s Land. Some, like Lois, lose their minds when confronted with the blown-off limbs, the burnt faces, the omnipresent dirt, the colliding insects and, perhaps worse of all, the rats who gnaw at soldiers’ wounds. Others suffer from survivor’s guilt, as well as deep shame at their complicity in allowing the war to continue. For Addie, it is ‘ludicrous to nurse [a soldier] back to health so the authorities could return him to the front. She felt like an accomplice to a shady deal.’ There’s a reason the real-life nurse Mary Borden characterised army hospitals as the ‘second battlefield.’
So what relief for the harried nurse? The only sustenance for Meg is her affair with the unit’s surgeon, Wallace Madison, who repairs people by removing their infected limbs. At first it is difficult to see why Meg falls so hard for Wallace. He is distant and mercurial, obviously married. If some parts of the writing seem to descend into Harlequin romance, that is because their affair can seem trivial amidst the backdrop of bombs, mutilation, and shell-shock. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which Meg ignores Wallace’s faults in order to invent a ‘love story’ for herself. She clings to the fantasy of marriage and babies with him so as to pin the chaos of her daily life, the relentless bodily harm to which she is witness, onto a conventional plot for her future.
In contrast, Addie’s first attempt to pair herself with an artist-soldier fails miserably. She haplessly enquires, ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ The naivety of both Meg and Addie points to another idiosyncrasy of the war, whereby provincial New Zealand girls were thrown into the realm of upper-middle-class surgeons and artists. At times, the nurses’ memories of ‘home,’ which are overlaid in the narrative, seem awkward or false. But they are crucial to the women’s realisation that the hallowed ‘Motherland’ of England is, in fact, fiction. The English officers, supposedly of equal rank to the nurses, embody the disparity of class and nation. One screams, ‘Don’t use your blasted colonial torture on me!’ Another demands, ‘Sister, do you know any Maori chiefs? I hear they fancy a bit of whitey.’
The men in the hospital beds are not the upright, photogenic ‘heroes’ celebrated every Anzac day but crippled, disfigured, moody, and moaning. The frailty of the men generates constant talk amongst the nurses about losing the war to ‘Fritz.’ In fact, the removal of action from the excitements of the battlefield can be frustrating. Sometimes I longed for the detail of trench life found in Birdsong or Passport to Hell. Alterio’s nurses can seem too cocooned in their own gauze.
In the ‘second battlefield’ that is the hospital, men are reduced to a catalogue of lists: ‘ten spines, seven abdomens, four knees, nine heads and a lung case,’ or ‘four amputations, five fly-blown abdominal cases, a chest, two intestines, one bladder, a fractured lower maxilla and three shattered shoulders.’ Even in death, men constitute ‘a pair of eyes.’ The abbreviation of men into their injuries is countered by the inter-chapter monologues which are narrated by male soldiers, chaplains, orderlies, and so on. Clearly, then, the nurses’ use of clinical language acts as a protective shield from the sheer magnitude of human suffering to which they are exposed, every single day.
Addie’s visit to Lille near the end of the novel offers an interesting fusion of the two battlefields. She transfers the medical itemisation of the body onto a landscape that has been ‘destroyed’ by warfare. Her jump from a ditch onto a twig sounds ‘like teeth breaking.’ The charred buildings rise in front of her like ‘ashen fingers.’ She finds a severed hand, ‘its intricate network of bones picked clean,’ and buries it in the French countryside. Addie reasons that ‘whether these bones belonged to an Englishman, a German or a New Zealander, they deserved respect.’ The scene offers a striking reminder that the effects of war are universal, but also suggests why the devastation of WWI continues to reverberate around the globe 100 years later. Lest we forget the casualties of war recalled to life in Alterio’s pages.
AZURE RISSETTO is studying for her PhD in English Literature at the University of Auckland.