Maxine Alterio's new book is fiction but firmly grounded in fact. She talks to Mike Houlahan about Lives We Leave Behind, a novel which is a tribute to women who left New Zealand to nurse in World War I.
Dunedin writer Maxine Alterio went the extra mile to ensure Lives We Leave Behind - a novel about World War I nurses - was authentic.
As well as reading archival material in the Hocken and Alexander Turnbull libraries, and poring over all published histories, diaries and memoirs, Alterio also sought collectors of medical ephemera so she could hold the kind of equipment her characters did. Combined with detailed explanations of typical types of surgery on battlefield injuries, Alterio has tried to honour the weight of history and the weight of responsibility felt by the young women she writes about.
"These women were dealing with men not much younger than themselves, minus arms and legs, with terrible facial injuries, haemorrhaging, seriously ill. There was one nurse and one orderly," Alterio said.
"It must have been horrific and they never had any idea of what was going to happen next. They move from one place to another regularly and the battle was only a kilometre or two away."
Lives We Leave Behind, Alterio's second novel, is the story of Meg Dutton and Addie Harrington - small town nurses with little in common bar shared quarters on the hospital ship Maheno. A friendship tentatively forms and is cemented after the torpedoing of the British troopship Marquette.
The fictional nurses survive to serve on the Western Front: those who do not were killed in the incident in real life - one of the few instances where Alterio used real names.
"I would have had an ethical problem with that (using real nurses throughout the book), but I did want to pay tribute to the nurses who were lost, it was important to do so," she said.
"I very much wanted them to be from small town New Zealand so I could bring in them joining up so they could see something of the world - something that they would not otherwise have done, because of financial reasons or parental control. For example, Addie's parents would rather she married. I also wanted to explore what it was like to live those four years and then to be thinking of coming home, and how you would choose to make sense of your experiences."
While predominantly a book about women at war, Lives We Leave Behind has strong male voices as well.
Surgeon Wallace Madison, soldier and artist High Phillips and medical officer Edward Ramsay are constants in the nurses' lives and get soliloquies at the end of each chapter.
"I really wanted to explore different personalities and what I wanted to come through was how different people managed the work, the wounded, the worry that they went through," Alterio said. "I thought that someone who is very driven, outgoing and fun-loving like Meg would cope very differently, so when she talks or when she is involved in a relationship, it is very live for the moment," she said. Whereas Addie - I wanted her to be quite reflective, think about things and play by the rules.
"While the women are in the foreground, I wanted the men's voices to provide background and offer an array of voices.
"For example, the surgeon Meg has an affair with is very charismatic but he is also very damaged."
The novel ends with the war ending, but the reader is left wondering - as the characters are - what awaits them at home.
"I know readers will probably ask and I did have an idea but I thought it was best to leave things open," Alterio said.
Lives We Leave Behind, published by Penguin. RRP $38.
- The Southland Times