“Outlander meets Birdsong is this haunting debut timeslip novel, where a strange twist of fate connects a British soldier fighting in the First World War and a young woman living in modern-day England a century later. Shortlisted for the Eharmony/Orion Write Your Own Love Story Prize 2019”
In 1916 1st Lieutenant Robert Lovett is a patient at Coldbrook Hall military hospital in Sussex, England. A gifted artist, he’s been wounded fighting in the Great War. Shell shocked and suffering from hysterical blindness he can no longer see his own face, let alone paint, and life seems increasingly hopeless.
A century later in 2017, medical student Louisa Casson has just lost her beloved grandmother – her only family. Heartbroken, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol on the South Downs cliffs – only to fall accidentally part-way down. Doctors fear she may have attempted suicide, and Louisa finds herself involuntarily admitted to Coldbrook Hall – now a psychiatric hospital, an unfriendly and chaotic place.
Then one day, while secretly exploring the old Victorian hospital’s ruined, abandoned wing, Louisa hears a voice calling for help, and stumbles across a dark, old-fashioned hospital room. Inside, lying on the floor, is a mysterious, sightless young man, who tells her he was hurt at the Battle of the Somme, a WW1 battle a century ago. And that his name is Lieutenant Robert Lovett…
Two people, two battles: one against the invading Germans on the battlefields of 1916 France, the other against a substandard, uncaring mental health facility in modern-day England. Two journeys begun a century apart, but somehow destined to coincide – and become one desperate struggle to be together.
Part WW1 historical fiction, part timeslip love story – and at the same time a meditation on the themes of war, mental illness, identity and art – Beyond The Moon sweeps the reader on an unforgettable journey through time.
Guest Post by Catherine Taylor
One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Beyond The Moon was researching all the information I needed to know about nursing work during the First World War.
I have wanted to write a novel about a WW1 nurse for a long time, in fact ever since (in my teens) first reading Vera Brittain’s book Testament of Youth, the moving account, first published in 1933, of her experiences during WW1. In her book she describes her privileged upbringing in Edwardian Britain – but then how all the hopes and expectations of her generation were dashed by the declaration of WW1. Vera’s fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and other close male friends join up and go off to fight in France, while Vera decided to become a military nurse, joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a volunteer. Testament of Youth describes her experiences nursing in France and Malta – while one by one her fiancé, friends, and then finally her beloved brother are killed in the war.
It’s an incredibly sad and deeply affecting story, and still manages to move me to tears years later. The parts of the book that are among the most vivid for me are those where Vera is nursing wounded soldiers, overworked and aching with tiredness, covered in blood and gore, trying to do her best amid the sheer influx of wounded..
Medicine, back in the early twentieth century, was obviously far less advanced than it is today. There was no medical imaging beyond the most basic X-rays, and there were no antibiotics – penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928, ten years after WW1 ended. Antibiotics would have saved countless lives: one of the main causes of the mass deaths of WW1 was so-called gas gangrene. This was a severe bacterial infection caused by the vast amount of microbes (usually from manure) present in the soil of northern France. The gas from these bacteria bubbled up through injured body part, quickly killing off flesh – and very often the patient. Immediate amputation was the only cure.
There was also little that could be done for men affected by the inhalation of poison phosgene and mustard gas – all that the medical staff had to offer was oxygen tents and rudimentary oxygen masks, which often made the wearer feel as if he were choking. A patient badly affected by poison gas wasn’t expected to survive for long, as the gas had effectively destroyed the respiratory system. Men essentially drowned, by asphyxiation, in their own bloody mucous, coughing up the lining of their own lungs.
Not only were the injuries horrendous, the conditions in military hospitals were often appalling, particularly when a battle was being fought. Far more men were being injured than the authorities had anticipated, and wards were overcrowded and equipment in short supply – as were medical staff. Doctors and nurses went days without sleep, and 18-hour shifts were normal. Every account written by WW1 medical staff that I’ve read talks of the incredible tiredness that they felt, almost hallucinating as they worked.
Still, at times I was surprised by just how advanced medicine was in some respects. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was already common to use medical plates made of silver to screw broken bones back into place. The plates had to be removed once they’d done their job, but they must have made a huge difference. The so-called ‘Thomas’ splint was also introduced during WW1 – a way of immobilising bones so that they could safely fuse back together. They’re still in use today. At the start of WW1 in 1914, 80% of soldiers with broken thigh bones died. The use of the Thomas splint, however, meant that by 1916, 80% of soldiers suffering that injury survived.
Also, blood transfusions began to be used towards the latter part of WW1, and saved many lives – in fact this is how my character Lieutenant Robert Lovett, in Beyond The Moon, is eventually saved. Before blood transfusions, many injured men died from blood loss – either because they couldn’t be evacuated from dangerous battlefields in time, or because of surgical shock, when necessary surgery caused too much injury to the circulatory system.
It was also during the First World War that the first major advances in plastic surgery were made. The sheer number of men suffering from horribly disfiguring facial shrapnel injuries meant that something had to be done, and pioneer doctor Howard Gillies, a New Zealand surgeon, came to the rescue, revolutionising the reconstruction of soft tissue with skin flaps and tubed pedicles. He’s now often referred to as the “father of plastic surgery”.
Vera Brittain, after the Great War, joined the Peace Pledge Union and campaigned for a world without war. But sadly it was not to be. Howard Gillies’ expertise was needed again little more than twenty years later, in World War Two. And a whole new generation of doctors and nurses were required to put their shoulders to the wheel once more. Perhaps one day I’ll write a novel about them, too.
Catherine Taylor was born and grew up on the island of Guernsey in the British Channel Islands. She is a former journalist, most recently for Dow Jones News and The Wall Street Journal in London. Beyond The Moon is her first novel. She lives in Ealing, London with her husband and two children.
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