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Thursday, May 23, 2024



Kristin Hannah has shone a spotlight on a group of women whom history has done its best to ignore. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Women who served in the Vietnam war have long had their contribution ignored, but in her latest novel The Women, Kristin Hannah sets out to rectify this by paying tribute to the nurses who went to South East Asia with the US army.

Her main character is Frankie McGrath, who at the outset is almost unbelievably naïve, even for a sheltered middle-class child in the 1960s. Her wealthy California family are conservative, and she has been brought up to believe that her role in life is to look attractive and marry well.

While she does feel that there might possibly be more to life than this, she is going along with it until her adored brother heads off to Vietnam. She has trained as a nurse, and so she volunteers to join the army nursing corps, against the wishes of her family.

What Frankie encounters in Vietnam is something she could never have imagined – the chaos, the sheer terror she feels, the conditions and above all the numbers of casualties are all way beyond anything she expected.

The first part of the book deals with Vietnam and Frankie’s experiences there. Thrown in at the deep end, she makes good friends among the other nurses, and almost inevitably, working in the intense life of combat, falls in love. But she also comes to a growing awareness that the American government is lying to its people, telling them that the war is winnable, and being won. Hannah lays the horror on thickly, and the pace is breathless.

Having faced the seemingly unendurable and having become a very different person, Frankie’s tour of duty ends and she returns to the States where she finds herself being spat at and reviled by the growing army of anti-war protesters. Frankie cannot fit into the life she finds – she knows the war is wrong and unwinnable, but also knows that many of those fighting it are brave and committed. Her sacrifice goes unrecognised, and the life her parents lead, ignoring both sides of the debate, is alien to her.

Inevitably, with Frankie out of combat, some of the impetus of the novel is lost but her struggles to cope with civilian life and her own trauma occupy the second half of the book. She lurches from one crisis to another as the world seems to conspire against her. Only towards the end does she find a measure of peace.

Hannah has created a very readable novel, but the plotting is perhaps a little breathless and sometimes predictable, with drama piled on drama, only to come to a conclusion that is almost too neat. But she has shone a spotlight on a group of women whom history has done its best to ignore. - Margaret von Klemperer

The Women by Kristin Hannah is published by Macmillan - ISBN 978-1035005680