A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.
In war-torn France, Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl from the tenements of Brooklyn, tends to six seriously wounded soldiers in a makeshift medical unit. Enemy bombs have destroyed her hospital convoy, and now Jo singlehandedly struggles to keep her patients and herself alive in a cramped and freezing tent close to German troops. There is a growing tenderness between her and one of her patients, a Scottish officer, but Jo’s heart is seared by the pain of all she has lost and seen. Nearing her breaking point, she fights to hold on to joyful memories of the past, to the times she shared with her best friend, Kay, whom she met in nursing school.
Half a world away in the Pacific, Kay is trapped in a squalid Japanese POW camp in Manila, one of thousands of Allied men, women, and children whose fates rest in the hands of a sadistic enemy. Far from the familiar safety of the small Pennsylvania coal town of her childhood, Kay clings to memories of her happy days posted in Hawaii, and the handsome flyer who swept her off her feet in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Surrounded by cruelty and death, Kay battles to maintain her sanity and save lives as best she can . . . and live to see her beloved friend Jo once more.
When the conflict at last comes to an end, Jo and Kay discover that to achieve their own peace, they must find their place—and the hope of love—in a world that’s forever changed. With rich, superbly researched detail, Teresa Messineo’s thrilling novel brings to life the pain and uncertainty of war and the sustaining power of love and friendship, and illuminates the lives of the women who risked everything to save others during a horrifying time.
Sometimes the books that move me the most are the hardest to review. It can be hard to put thoughts into words when a book so completely absorbs me, chews me up, and spits me out. I'm sure there are other novels out there focusing specifically on nurses in World War II, but this is the first one I've read, and though it's only February, I can already say this is one of the best books I'll read all year. It may end up being THE best. It's going to be hard to beat. The back cover copy does a great job of telling you everything you need to know about the plot, so I will forego a recap and just tell you why you should read this book.
War is hell. And even when it's over, when the fighting and killing and pain and suffering and heartbreak give way to elation and hopefulness, everyone is fundamentally changed by what they had to do to survive. Teresa Messineo spent seven years researching this book, and boy does it show. The descriptions of the effects of war on the human soul are breathtaking. The depictions of what these nurses endured, their courage, their determination, are astounding. This book may be the ultimate tribute to the thousands of nurses whose valiant efforts still remain in the shadows of the men whose lives they fought so hard to save. I had never heard of the Malinta Tunnel, Santo Tomas, or the Angels of Bataan before reading this book, and I studied history in college with a concentration on US military history. We covered Bataan and Corregidor, but we never talked about these nurses. Messineo's debut novel finally brings these women into the light. Though this is by no means a light read. I cried many times over the course of this novel as Jo and Kay fought to save their patients--and themselves--while remembering events that made them into the nurses they are in their quieter moments, when there was nothing to do but think and pray. After four years of war, they have a lot of painful memories with the bright moments far too few in number. And their struggles in the immediate aftermath of the war to reclaim their souls and find a place in a world so changed were just as emotional and illuminating. As a hopeless romantic, I so badly wanted a happy ending for both women, though happy endings in war often have to be redefined.
The Fire by Night is exceptionally well written. Probably one of the most impressive debut novels I've ever read. As I said earlier, I have no qualms about naming this one of the best books of the year. But with all that being said, it's not perfect. I could have done without some random, brief shifts in point of view to people who interacted with Jo and Kay, and there is an incident from nursing school that both women recall at several points in the story, but it is not very developed and probably should have had more attention given to it to merit its inclusion. But these are small issues when compared to the transporting, riveting, and extremely emotional quality of this story.
I know my little rambling review here is not doing this book justice, proving my point that it's hard to put thoughts into words after being emotionally pulverized by a story I will not forget, but if you are a fan of historical fiction or women's fiction, if you're interested in a side of World War II that is not given nearly as much attention it deserves, if you want to lose yourself in a gritty, heartbreaking, yet ultimately uplifting story, The Fire by Night is a must read for you.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
The Fire by Night is on a blog tour!