REVIEW: THE LIVES OF STELLA BAIN BY ANITA SHREVE

THE LIVES OF STELLA BAIN

Author: Anita Shreve
Little Brown Company RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Cover of The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita ShreveAnita Shreve’s latest novel, The Lives of Stella Bain, is an unassuming read that explores the impact of trauma, notably shell-shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, on a woman who wakes up on a field hospital in northern France, 1916. It’s a character-driven tale about an ordinary person, and the overall feel I had while reading was one of quiet reflection, rather than an atmosphere charged with plot twists and deep emotional connections.

Stella Bain wakes in a field hospital, injured and suffering memory loss; she has been working as a nurse’s aide near the front, she realises, but has no idea how she got those skills, or who she was prior to the day she was found wounded. Months later she travels to London where she meets surgeon August Bridge and his wife Lily; these kind strangers take Stella in, initially to help her recover from pneumonia, but as Stella regains her physical strength, her psychological symptoms attract Dr Bridge’s interest. Will he be able to help Stella find the secret of her identity? Who was Stella before she was found in France? What or who has she left behind?

The narrative moves between France, England and America. Flashbacks are woven into the story, but, like the rest of the story, are written in the present tense, giving a sense of the now. The main focus is on Stella recovering her memory, and when she does, reclaiming her identity. It’s a changed identity – Stella is no longer the woman she was before she was found in France. The experiences she’s had have shaped her anew; in some ways they have weakened her, both physically and mentally through a distressing combination of symptoms, and in others, they’ve strengthened her and given her the courage to face her fears and make things right. 

There is some interesting insight into the way shell shock was treated at the time, as well as life on the battlefields (though this is not the main focus). There’s also some insight into women’s roles at the time, both in and out of service, and the societal expectations of women (when it is revealed that Stella had a small cottage she went to just for space, for a place to feel safe, this is seen as wrong by men). Societal change is foreshadowed, but not dwelt on, so the scene is set for something epic … The Lives of Stella Bain falls short of that standard. But is that what the author was after anyway? The novel slowly peels back the layers of a woman’s identity and role (as well as her memory) but does so in a quiet, understated way. There is no ‘wow’ factor, but thinking about it, I wonder if that was intentional. No standing on the soapbox, just a subtle reminder that women have had to fight (and still are) for their place in the world.

I’ve since read mixed reviews of this book and it’s clear that it’s not a book for everyone – even some of Shreve’s fans are not sold on it. Some have called the book listless, while others have used the words vivid and compelling. See what I mean about mixed? What did I think? I wouldn’t describe it as vivid; I’m standing by the words understated and unassuming … but that doesn’t mean boring (unless you need a lot of action in books). So here’s how I see it: If you’re looking for the ‘wow’ factor, or something with exciting plot twists, look elsewhere; if you like books that use subtle, sparse and clever writing to deliver their message, or story, give this one a try. I’m interested to see what you think.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Bookish treat: I’ve got some carrot and chia mini-cupcakes left over from an event last night. Score!