Book review: When the Dawn Breaks by Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser opens up a fascinating new front in a heart-breaking novel of love and loss set against the panorama of the First World War.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 2nd December 2013, 9:00 am
When the Dawn Breaks by Emma Fraser
When the Dawn Breaks by Emma Fraser

A former nurse who trained in Edinburgh, Fraser whisks us back to the corner of a forgotten field hospital in Serbia where an all-female unit from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals braved bullets and bombs to care for thousands of refugees and allied soldiers.

Nurses and pioneering female doctors – some from Scotland and some from far-flung corners of the British Empire – answered a call for help from Edinburgh suffragist and doctor Elsie Inglis who set up units in in France, Serbia and Russia.

Taking Dr Inglis and her dedicated team of medics as her inspiration, Fraser weaves an epic and compelling wartime story featuring two young women from the Isle of Skye whose lives are intertwined by a dark secret in their past.

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In 1903, the Hebridean Isle of Skye is home to crofter’s daughter Jessie MacCorquodale – with her hand-me-down dress, worn-out boots and unruly hair – and doctor’s daughter Isabel MacKenzie whose velvet frocks, polished boots and golden hair speak loudly of her family wealth.

The two teenagers may be from different social classes but both have a burning ambition to take up medicine… Jessie as a nurse, and Isabel as a doctor even though medicine is not considered a fitting career for an upper class woman.

They also share a love for Archie, Jessie’s dark, handsome, older brother who is determined to escape his future as a crofter working all the hours God sends just to have enough to eat.

Isabel is attracted to Archie because he is like no other person she has ever met… he’s strong, determined and her only friend even if she doesn’t always understand his restless moods.

When Jessie’s father dies in a typhoid epidemic, her nursing dreams seem destined to remain unfulfilled and Archie will have to remain at home to run the farm. But, after a dark incident in the local woods, Archie disappears and all their lives change overnight.

Against the odds, Isabel qualifies as a doctor and Jessie becomes a nurse and when their paths cross again, neither is certain what the other woman knows about that fateful day on Skye. But when war breaks out and they find themselves working shoulder to shoulder, they have no option but to confront the past and all they have kept hidden…

Fraser’s own nursing knowledge and expertise give added authenticity and impetus to this gripping tale which is laced together with romance, adventure and an intriguing, underlying mystery.

From the wild beauty of Skye to the rigours of early 20th century medical training in Edinburgh and on to the battlefields of Europe, this is an eye-opening journey into the past.

Through an irresistible blend of fact and fiction, When the Dawn Breaks provides a moving and well-researched insight into the human and emotional cost to the young women who risked their lives in both the theatre of war and the operating theatre.

This touching, thought-provoking saga is a fitting tribute to their resilience and bravery.

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)