A writer of compelling contemporary issues, Shreve tries her hand at historical drama in this Great War tale of love gone wrong—a fairly common theme for a story of this emotional magnitude. Lying in a field hospital not far from the Western Front, Stella Bain has no memory of how she got there. She hears the hum of flies, the beat of fast footsteps; “soil thick with manure “surrounds her, and” mud-laced wounds causing suppurating infections” in the poor, dying soldiers.
Stella has been found in a British VAD uniform, but she’s not even sure if she is British--“all sensibility and religion” have been violently stripped away from her during the endless succession of amputations stretching from No Man’s Land to the aid post in which she lies. The nurse on duty reveals that she has been unconscious for two days, but Stella cannot for the life of her remember what regiment she was attached to nor what she was doing on the battlefield. Stitching what she can around her, the private drawings she makes disturb her, breeding a sense of familiarity and perpetuating a keen sense of stress.
Stella is, for a moment, a stateless woman in a lawless country. Somehow getting to London, she is rescued on the streets of Bryanston Square by kindly Lily Bridge. Stella remains overwrought. Constant confusion taxes her intellect, as well as a pain in her legs and a deafness that seems quite real. Cursed with a wracking cough and a searing pain in her chest, Stella can barely escape from the images of the battlefield, its guns and shrapnel, and all the dead and dying bodies.
Enter Lily’s husband, Dr. August Bridge: a larger-than-life personality and gargantuan genius. Both kindly and insatiably curious, August’s first thought is that his patient is suffering from hysteria. Stella pleads with August that she cannot go back to France until her symptoms subside. She admits to him that her greatest difficulty is her inability to remember anything in her life prior to waking in a hospital tent in Marne. August plans to make Stella the basis of his research, and through their collaboration, Stella is assailed by a powerful feeling that the solution to the riddle of her identity lies at “The Admiralty.”
Stella travels into an opaque brown fog, turning to her drawings which become a link of sorts to the past: “I'm floating in a world in which I have no part.” Thus unspools Stella’s account of a compartmentalized life, a masquerade of identities and causes where her decision to help in the war effort manifests in an obvious threat to her life. She has a sudden and intense desire to flee on a fool’s errand, obsessed with the idea she must return to the Front but not quite knowing why. For all Stella’s search to find herself—a search that will eventually take her back to America—Shreve is able to juxtapose Stella’s quiet integrity with the pain of love and an abused life recalled in equal time.
In beautiful, crystalline prose, Shreve allows us to be mesmerized by the light that glows as strong and steady as Stella’s disturbing drawings. Under August’s glass dome above Bryanston Square, we learn of Stella’s abuse, while the conflicts of other characters in the novel become our own. All the characters bear an emotional and oftentimes frustrating burden as Shreve’s short, sharp chapters gradually unfold in close-up points of view, revealing each personality in a way that leads us to understand and (in almost every case) sympathize with them.
While I appreciated Shreve’s novel for its graphic descriptions of the Western Front‘s bloody chaos, I proceeded through the book with a growing sense of dread that I was witnessing a tragedy in which a vulnerable young woman cannot escape the power of her abuser. In a landscape where a husband uses his innocent daughter to destroy the reputation of his rival and a younger brother risks his life on the battlefields of France—and where abuse is never spoken aloud or recognized and lives are almost ruined because of it—Shreve captures in myriad detail the various aspects of Stella’s passionate, tenuous existence.