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~Iris and Grace~
Iris is old and frail. Her body and her mind challenge her every day. She's increasingly forgetful, she can't remember the names of the grandchildren or things around her and her heart is a cause of concern for her doctors. Her life is ebbing away and she fills her days with little things - caring for an orphaned possum, chatting to the postman, and watching out for the visits from her long dead brother who keeps appearing before her as a young boy. The possum should be ample clue that Iris lives in Australia.
Grace is Iris's granddaughter but she was brought up by her grandmother after her mother died in childbirth. Grace is a successful woman - an obstetrician or a gynaecologist, I'll admit I'm not sure about the difference - but she's got a lot on her plate. When she's not delivering babies and fighting against the prejudices that face women doctors in the late 1970s/early 1980s, she's worrying about Grace or worrying about her youngest son, Henry, who's not developing quite how he would be expected to do.
Iris is young, brave, and caught up in the biggest war the world has ever known. She has been sent to Europe by her Australian father to find her younger brother who lied about his age to sign up and fight against the Germans. As the result of meeting a woman on a railway station, Iris is distracted from her mission and finds herself working with a Scottish charity who are setting up a hospital to treat the dead and dying from the French trenches. Iris speaks French, taught by her French step-mother, and she's a nurse by training. She quickly becomes the administrator of the new hospital, supporting the eccentric doctor, Miss Ivens.
~Past and Present~
The threads of the story pull together when elderly Iris receives an invitation to attend a reunion at Royaumont, the hospital she helped run during the First World War. She has spent decades trying to put the past behind her but now she knows this might be her last chance to go back and confront her personal demons and meet old friends. Grace is opposed to the travel, arguing that her grandmother is just too old and frail, but Iris is adamant. She has to die somewhere so why not live a little first. The only problem is that if Iris goes back she will have to come clean about some major secrets which she's kept for over 60 years. For readers, the gradual exposure of those secrets forms the backbone of Mary-Rose MacColl's new book, In Falling Snow.
In Falling Snow is a book which peels away the layers of lies and reveals the hidden past, gradually leading the reader to suspect they know what's going on but repeatedly taking us in unexpected directions. I guessed some of the revelations but was always only partially right. It really kept me hooked to know exactly what was going on. With past and present (or rather it's not actually present - it's the 1970s or 1980s) running side by side, we are given Iris's First World War story side by side with her life as an elderly and increasingly infirm grandmother and great-grandmother. Recalling how my own grandfather couldn't recall what he'd done earlier the same day but was as clear as a bell on the names of men he served with in the Second World War, I found the presentation of a clear past and a muddled present entirely believable.
~Does it work?~
Bringing in the woes of Grace and setting them beside those of both young and old Iris created a fascinating contrast between the lives of bright, intelligent women and the choices that faced them in the early and late 20th century. Mary-Rose MacColl fills the pages with rich and vibrant detail, spinning together a multitude of plot lines, some minor, some of greater significance. In a couple of cases I'm not entirely sure those plot lines were entirely resolved - I still remain unclear about the outcome of the investigation into Grace's malpractice case - but on the whole, that's life. It doesn't always come with neat and tidy conclusions.
I enjoyed Iris in both her youthful and elderly incarnations. The descriptions of life in the hospital in a community of women treating wounded men were fascinating and almost very believable. At times I'd have appreciated a map to better picture in my mind just where the hospital was in relation to both Paris and the front line but that's a minor gripe on my part. I did struggle a little to believe that young Iris would have travelled so easily from Australia to France and then just slotted into place with only a brief aside to comment on how cold the weather was. I also found her speaking fluent French thanks to a French step-mother to be a touch too convenient and not entirely credible. But I was willing to put all these things aside because of the strength of the story. At times I wondered why it was necessary to the plot for her to be an Australian, other than geography giving her a convenient way to maintain her secrets for so long (and to bring into the story a cute little possum).
The book covers some harsh and controversial topics about the war in a pragmatic and entertaining way. I felt I learned a lot from the novel without ever feeling I'd been 'taught'. Iris's brother Tom finds a relatively 'safe' job in the postal corps, protected by a senior officer who knows that he is underage and gathers many of the younger boys under his wing. Tom's eventual death is as shocking as it is inevitable. Readers know throughout the book that Tom will not come home but when we find out the 'how and why' of his death it comes as an enormous shock. It's much later, towards the very end that we learn that Tom has left an unusual legacy.
The Royaumont women are a fascinating bunch. With the men away at war, they've achieved a female society people by nurses and doctors, suffragists and adventure seekers, women who like men, and women who think the world would be a better place without them. The challenges of setting up and running the hospital are many and varied - from the practicality of where to put the wards and where to house the staff through to the Croix Rouge insisting the men must have a wine allowance to them demanding a French chef since no French man, no matter how wounded, should have to eat British food. The women don't all get along and there are fights between staff, official complaints made and inspections failed and passed. It's hard to imagine the research which must have gone into getting so much detail into In Falling Snow but it's impressive.
I found the First World War parts of the book to be dripping in authenticity and to be firmly rooted in the time. However I struggled with the later parts and found that here was little about the book which really persuaded me that attention had been given to setting these parts firmly in the period of the late 1970s or early 1980s. Grace's treatment in the hospital was not particularly linked to the period and could have been any time at all. Other than noticing an absence of mobile phones and computers, there wasn't too much that would make you say "Yes, this is the time and these are elements of that time which prove the authenticity". The problem with any book set in the First World War that wants to have an elderly but living protagonist, is that it cannot be set much after the early 1980s. I wanted just a small part of the attention to period detail that made the war chapters so good to have rubbed off on the chapters set much later. I can forgive that though because the story itself is so strong, so intriguing and the eventual 'reveal' so powerful that the absence of a few shoulder pads or contemporary musical references causes only a minor niggle.
I was hooked, impressed, entertained and educated by In Falling Snow and recommend it highly.
In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl
Published by Allison & Busby, March 2013
With thanks to Book Depository for providing a review copy via curiousbookfans.co.uk where an earlier version of this review also appears