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BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

| 25 September 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

Hachette Australia
July 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Historical Romance


Pamela Hart takes a leaf out of Natasha Lester’s book in her latest novel, The Desert Nurse. Hart once again sets her story during World War I and has a strong, female protagonist at the centre of the proceedings. The result is a pleasant and engaging romance about two unlikely and reluctant lovers.

She walked into the dining room happier than she had been for years. Finally of age. Finally able to follow her own path, instead of obediently following his. This was the day she shook off his rule over her once and for all. To return to the goals she’d laid out for herself when she was fourteen.

Evelyn Northey is a country girl who lives in Taree with her Doctor father. The old man has some very strong opinions about what is proper for women and what they can and can’t do. Even though Evelyn has the financial means to study at university thanks to her mother’s inheritance, Evelyn’s father forbids her from training to be a doctor. Instead, she has to content herself with being a nurse.

No surprise that things change for Evelyn and everyone with the advent of World War I. Evelyn defies her Dad and enlists as an army nurse. This adventure will see her travelling to Egypt and treating soldiers who are injured on the frontlines. Hart does an excellent job of capturing the human carnage from the war through those characters who help convalesce and treat these damaged individuals. In an interview Hart said that this book was a tribute to the medical staff who helped nurse her injured grandfather back to life during this same war.

Even before he rounded a corner and saw the station concourse, he could smell the blood and the rank, unmistakable stench of a gut wound. The platform was filled with stretchers, with men using a branch or a stick for a crutch, with men with bandaged arms leading men with bandages around their eyes. A train was drawn up and stretcher-bearers were ferrying the wounded onto the train.
The attack on the Dardanelles. Everyone had been waiting for it. And this was the result. The scale of it was staggering. The carnage was so great it made him sick to his stomach. For a moment, he hesitated. Where to start?

This story obviously centres primarily on Evelyn’s perspective. But Hart also offers an alternative viewpoint in Dr William Brent. He’s a middle-class boy from Parramatta who has been left physically impaired due to his childhood polio. Both he and Evelyn are strong-willed and each is determined to never marry. In William’s case he believes that his disability prevents him from doing so. For Evelyn, she refuses to let a man control her destiny, something that was highly likely to occur given the social sensibilities of the time.

A lot of this story centres around the question of will they or won’t they get together with respect to Evelyn and William’s relationship. It is quite a slow-burning affair overall, and the pair wind up protesting so much that it can get rather frustrating for the reader. While it does meet a quick enough resolution at the end, this feels like it is dealt with too swiftly, especially when you consider what has transpired in the lead-up to this.

She was overtaken by a sense of unreality. It seemed impossible that she should be here, so far from home; that she had saved a man’s life by her skill only an hour earlier; that this was Egypt, the land of Bible stories and pyramids. Moses himself might have stood right where she was standing. How could that be possible for a girl from the bush?
And she might go further still. Edinburgh.
Dr Northey, with a degree from Edinburgh. She could be that person.
She would be. No husband would stop her, no children demand her attention. Nothing was more important.

Hart obviously does a lot of research and this makes her characters rich, realistic, and vivid. This is certainly the case for her female trailblazers like Evelyn who are forging their own paths in a man’s world. Hart has also taken steps not to whitewash history by including some characters from different backgrounds. But that said, she does make her other characters deal with these individuals with the kind of casual racism that was rife at the time. This approach – as well as William’s use of the word “cripple” to describe his injury – may offend sensitive, contemporary readers.

‘A woman in love,’ she said.
Matron flinched as though she’d been struck and her eyes were haunted, hunted, as though she ran from a truth she couldn’t admit.
‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘How could I love someone coloured?’
Evelyn shook her head. She felt ill. Dr Fanous, so lovely, so cultured, to be relegated to ‘coloured’, as though that mattered next to his intelligence and caring. It was an evil word, a thing of division and hate, the legacy of conquest and slavery.

The Desert Nurse is another solid and intriguing historic novel from Pamela Hart, and quite a sweet love story – even if it feels painstakingly slow at times. The Desert Nurse is ultimately a realistic window into the best and worst of times and some emotions that are heightened during a life in love and war.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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