Thursday, 21 January 2010

Not so quiet (Zennor Smith)

I have Cath of Read_Warbler to thank for this wonderful recommendation (which is very well reviewed here) which I greatly enjoyed reading.

Telling the story of Helen, an ambulance driver during the First World War, the book is set in France on the battlefield. Whilst many wartime memoirs often paint a somewhat cosy picture of everyone pulling together and a certain amount of enjoyment coming out of the comraderie and sense of a job well done, this book is harrowing and shows how dangerous work as an ambulance driver on the Western front really was. Not only do the girls cope with long shifts and very little sleep, they are also subject to the petty whims of the camp commandent known as The Bitch who seems to specialise in victimisation for small misdemeanours. Other things seem ridiculous - despite there being 40 ambulance drivers, cocoa is only ever made for 30, meaning that the last 10 drivers struggling in in the small hours have to do without. The girls survive on packages from home since the cook is incapable of cooking food that does not poison them. On the other hand, the girls relied on the support from their friendships to cheer them up, but the picture painted is one of unremitting hard work and horrific conditions.

I especially liked the style of writing, which was a bit stream of consciousnesslike and really added to the immediacy of the scenes that were being described:

As Cath explained in her review, the book feels like it is an autobiography, when actually it is a work of fiction. The author (actually the journalist Evadne Price) had been asked to write a spoof on All quiet on the western front, but had thought that this was inappropriate, and so ended up writing this book instead to comment on the horrific nature of the war.


  1. I like the sound of this Verity, and will be looking out for it. Years ago I read 'The Roses of No Mans Land' which was letters and diary's from vad nurses and similer in france, good but harrowing. Until then I hadn't realised how close to the front line women got, or how hard it was made for them.

  2. I've heard great things about this one too, and I'm saving it for the right moment. But I don't think you mean Zennor - are you wishing yourself to Cornwall?!

  3. I think this is possibly the best book I've read about WW1 and I'm so glad you liked it as much as me. So much of it just beggars belief and for me one of the worst aspects was the attitude of her parents at home who just had no understanding and didn't strive to get any. Awful. I don't understand why this book is not more widely known; it should be required reading for students of history.

  4. Hayley - that book sounds fascinating. It's interesting to learn about womens' role in WW1 as it is so much more obvious in WW2.

    Jane - oops - yes!! Zenna!

    Cath - thank you so much again for recommending it to me. I was shocked by her parent's attitude but suspect that that may not have been that uncommon.

  5. I don't think I've read anything from the first world war other than nurse or orderly accounts. I see my university library has this, so I'm definitely adding this to my list.

  6. I have this on my TPR pile, though a different edition. I remember Cath's review of it and wanted to read it then, too. So many books--how to squeeze them all in??