Top critical review
The Sea Nurses
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 6 June 2022
The Sea Nurses by Kate Eastham certainly starts off with an explosive opening in 1916 as the HMS Britannic, a hospital ship, is breaking apart. A nurse struggles to reach safety and is then sent flying overboard and left drifting in the sea with death and destruction all around her. Well, these few brief pages certainly had me keen to read more. Who was the nurse? How did she come to be on the ship and what exactly happened to the ship for it to be breaking apart? But long before we reach that point we go back in time to August 1914 and we are introduced to one of the main female characters, Iris Purefoy. The other character being Evie Munro who we learn more about later.
Given the title you would expect the author to launch straight into the war years and how nurses away at sea dealt with the trauma and bloodshed inflicted on so many. But no, instead we are given the background stories to the two women, which was welcome and vital in helping the reader form a picture of them as they both came from very differing backgrounds and then in turn we see how they come to work alongside one another as sea nurses during the war years. I have read heaps of books set during World War Two and by this stage I feel like I know the subject matter inside out. As for World War One, I find there aren’t that many books set during that period so I was glad when The Sea Nurses featured these years.
Kate Eastham brings to life a time so vastly different from the one we live in now. Well, sadly not in the fact that we still have wars raging in the present but the life of Iris working as a first class stewardess for the White Star Line and all the glamour and surprises that brought, we’ll never see an era like that again. Iris works on the luxury liner, HMS Olympic, and she loves every minute of it. Life at sea provides a sense of freedom and several opportunities come her way. She is also a qualified nurse so she has that extra special touch when it comes to dealing with first class passengers. Especially, the tricky customer that is Miss. Duchamp who at times has her run ragged with her fussy ways. But Miss. Duchamp will have an important role to play later in the story. We get an insight as to how Iris came to work on the liner. She grew up in India, but her parents died when she was young and she was sent to live with a maiden aunt in England. When she was older she worked as a nurse but suffered sepsis from an injury and needed time out to recuperate. When well again, she felt the job as a nurse stewardess would provide the change she needed in life and adventures at sea seemed like she just what she craved.
Iris was a fabulously written character and to view the ship through her eyes was brilliant. All the glitz and the glamour of first class and the camaraderie of those below deck and in steerage. It was a special era and Kate Eastham brought it to life so well. Iris was a brilliantly written character. She showed many sides to her personality, the strict, disciplined and professional side but also when not working you could see her relax slightly, yet the iron will and passion she had was always there simmering under the surface. I appreciated the friendship she developed with Evie. I would say it wasn’t a sisterly relationship more so like mother and daughter with Iris being the more sensible and wiser of the two. She had a clear and strong head on her shoulders whereas I felt Evie was more flighty. Iris always displayed resilience and independence at least on the outside but deep below her self-contained core she was just like any other woman she just wanted to be loved and cared for. Will Jack Rosetti, a rogue of a stowaway, catch her eye or has fate different plans in store for her? With the outbreak of war Iris’ carefully ordered world away at sea is turned on its head and there are many challenges ahead as the majority of liners are turned into hospital ships.
Evie was the complete antithesis of Iris and it really helped the plot to have two contrasting characters but at the same they could come together for each other when fate throws them together in a situation they had never dreamed possible. Evie is from a small Scottish village but spends the herring season working in Great Yarmouth. The sea always calls to her and she works with many women dealing with the catch brought in by the fleet. She has no specific qualifications but when someone is injured she can be relied upon to do a good job of patching them up. Evie had a wild spirit. She loved being out in the open but she has suffered loss in her life with her father being lost to the sea when she was younger and now all she has left is her brother who is married to a woman she doesn’t particularly get on with. She doesn’t understand loss nor she is especially equipped to deal with the savagery of it and even more so when the man of her dreams, Jamie, is lost at sea. Yet more, tragedy befalls her, the specifics of which I won’t go into. Suffice, to say the author certainly put Evie through the mill definitely more so than Iris. In the later half of the book, I found she put on a brave face but deep down she was haunted by her experiences. When war breaks out she views it as a fresh start for her but she wouldn’t have wished for war to occur in order for her to see more of the world. She becomes a Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nurse and although she is but a probationer she is unrelenting in her work, fierce and full of ideas.
It’s at this point that the two characters of Iris and Evie finally meet and life onboard the hospital ship tests all the courage and strength that they both have. I found the scenes on board the ship to be detailed and well researched. The men and women who were doctors and nurses respectively did incredible things under immense pressure in order to save as many lives as possible and what struck me was the limited amount of resources they had and the fact they operated at sea and tended to so many injured was just incredible. The author certainly brought to life a time which I feel has been forgotten. The book overall was very good and a quite a quick read and being truthfully honest I felt that at times things happened too quickly and events were glossed over instead of more detailing being provided.
Given the first half had such detail which made the book come alive for me, I expected the same from the second half. Yes the major climax of the book and a huge turning point for all the characters was horrifying and so vividly written but I felt after that, the war years were skipped through quickly and things happened rather conveniently for some of the characters. Not that what occurred you wouldn’t have wanted not to happen but I felt a little bit more fleshing out was needed and at times the later half of the book felt rushed and suffered for it. Despite this, I am glad I read The Sea Nurses as it is an emotional and inspiring read which reminds us to never forget those who have gone before us and who did so much in a time of great peril. I was delighted to read that there will be more from Evie and Iris in the future as World War Two looms on the horizon for them.