A protagonist with amnesia is a tried and true plot device and works a treat in Anita Shreve’s novel The Lives of Stella Bain. Stella is an American nurse who wakes up in a French field hospital in the middle of World War One. She can’t remember who she is, but with the language barrier and all, no one seems to notice and soon she’s back at work, driving an ambulance.
A sudden hazy memory drives Stella to decamp for London, in search of the British Admiralty, where she is certain she will find the key to unlock her past. On arrival, however, she almost keels over from exhaustion to be taken in by the charitable Lily and August Bridge. August is a doctor specialising in cranial reconstruction, but is fascinated by Stella’s case and agrees to take her on as a patient.
The first half of the novel describes Stella’s slow recovery, and makes for gripping reading. Stella has discovered a talent for drawing and under August’s prompting her pictures reveal moments from her past. When she eventually visits the Admiralty, Stella makes a startling discovery – one that will send her home to America on a mission: to recover custody of her children.
The rest of the book, however, failed to live up to the promise of the first half, with a lengthy court case and lacking the character development I felt would have made Stella and other characters more interesting. Amid a plethora of recent novels about World War One, this one may not stand up too well, but I can just imagine it as a film starring Julia Roberts.
Posted by JAM
Catalogue Link: The Lives of Stella Bain