Sisters Under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris Book Review 4/5
From the publisher:
In the midst of WWII, an English musician, Norah Chambers, places her eight-year-old daughter Sally on a ship leaving Singapore, desperate to keep her safe as the island falls to the Japanese Army.
Australian nurse Nesta James has enlisted to tend to Allied troops. But as Japanese troops overrun the island she joins the terrified cargo of people, including the heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the Vyner Brooke merchant ship. Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia, and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke has sunk.
After surviving 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. The camps are places of starvation and brutality, where disease runs rampant.
But even here joy can be found, in music, where Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ has the power to transport the internees out of the squalor and into the light. Sisters in arms, Norah and Nesta devote themselves to the women’s survival while discovering their own extraordinary reserves of courage, love and strength.
Sisters under the Rising Sun is a story of women in war: a novel of sisterhood, bravery and friendship in the darkest of circumstances, from the multimillion-copy bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey and Three Sisters.
We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.
Sisters Under the Rising Sun is based on the true accounts of a group of women captured during WW2 and interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. We learn of a group of Australian nurses, serving with the Australian Army, and meet others who are also taken prisoner.
The story is mainly told by Nesta James, a nurse, and Norah Chambers, a musician from England. Once captured, the women are sent to a prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. Sisters Under the Rising Sun tells of their experiences in the 3 years and 7 months that they were incarcerated in the camps. The women were often split up and moved to different locations, and subjected to starvation, unsanitary conditions and hard labour. This is a hard-hitting read, but written in a style that somehow sets the reader away from the terrible things happening to the women. For me, it took a while to get used to the writing – I loved Morris’s previous books The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey immediately, but this wasn’t an instant connection. However, as I progressed through the book, the writing style took on a different meaning for me.
For me, I initially felt the writing style a little saccharine in the description of the nurses, a little lacking in depth – short paragraphs and a lack of detail beyond the dialogue. However, this began to evoke a sort of disconnection from the horrific experiences of the nurses during their incarceration in the camps. The nurses are stoic, practical and the deep camaraderie and sisterhood between the women is obviously a source of strength between the group, when conditions, supplies and willpower are slowly eroded away in the camps. It made me wonder that the lack of much emotion in the writing reflected the trauma and damage that these women must have experienced. The factual recounting of deaths as camp conditions deteriorated and illness took over, the brutal punishments endured by some of the women described in just a few sentences, and the way that hierarchy shaped the way they managed to survive in the camp – we are there, but not quite there. As I got used to this, and imagined this grim form of survival, the lack of emotion actually made it more real, somehow.
Having witnessed massacres of their colleagues and friends, a shipwreck and the loss of children and partners, the women find strength in hierarchy and assigning meaning to their days. The division of labour, the meaning given to certain tasks, the grim humour in the face of starvation. Sorting weevils from the rice rations, finding solace in song and music. The focus of the writing on the details of the connection between the women and the strength they found in each other, rather than the horrific experiences they were sharing, showcases the importance of the bond between the group. Kind words and support between each other are given precedence. Individual experiences and acts of solidarity are detailed, with the harrowing events of every day camp life being described in an almost factual way by the women. We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.
Morris details the real-life stories of the women at the end of the book, and that reminder that these events happened to real people makes the book even more hard hitting. Their stories are truly important, and should not be forgotten. A difficult read, but one that is so worth it.
Thank you #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂