Sisters under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris: Immaculately researched, and written with the heartfelt compassion – book review –

When Singapore fell to the Japanese Army in 1942, hundreds of men, women and children crammed on board departing ships to escape the death, destruction and chaos wreaking havoc across the island.
Sisters under the Rising Sun by Heather MorrisSisters under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris
Sisters under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris

Many died when the ships left port and were bombed by enemy planes while those that survived were soon captured and held prisoner for three and a half years under appalling conditions. Women and children were separated from their menfolk and had to rely on their own courage and resilience to survive, and it is their story that has too often been forgotten.

New Zealand-born Heather Morris, bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey and Three Sisters, is passionate about bringing us the true stories of often hidden wartime heroics through the medium of novels, and not since the hit 1980s BBC TV series Tenko, which memorably dramatised the wartime experiences of women in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, has their plight been so graphically brought to life.

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And to add extra poignancy to this gripping and emotional tale of sisterhood, bravery and friendship in the darkest of circumstances, the leading characters are given their authentic names, with their suffering and privations in the camp recalled by the women’s family members.

However, as Morris tells us in her author’s notes, the reason for writing Sisters under the Rising Sun was not to make sure that female internees in war camps in Indonesia are remembered, but ‘so that they will be known’ because ‘how can you be remembered if you’ve never been heard of?’

In February of 1942, an English musician, Norah Chambers, is desperate to keep her eight-year-old daughter Sally safe from the Japanese Army as they move down through the Pacific and reluctantly places her into the care of relatives who are on a ship leaving Singapore for Australia.

Heartbroken Norah stays behind to care for her elderly parents and husband John, who is in hospital suffering from typhus, and fears she may never see her child again. But as Singapore finally falls to the Japanese, Norah and John, and her sister Ena Murray and husband Kenneth, join hundreds of others on the Vyner Brooke merchant ship to make their own escape.

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Also on board is Sister Nesta James, a pint-sized Welsh-Australian nurse and a fearless, born adventurer, who – along with a group of other Australian Army nurses – has been tending to injured Allied troops in the hospital in Singapore.

Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke lies broken on the seabed. After surviving a terrifying 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah are among the survivors who reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured by the Japanese, separated from the men, and herded into one of their notorious PoW camps.

The women soon discover that the camps are places of starvation and unimaginable suffering where diseases are rampant and the guards are brutal. For the next three years and more, sisters in arms Norah and Nesta fight side by side every day, helping whoever they can, and discovering in themselves, and each other, extraordinary reserves of courage, resourcefulness and determination.

And even here, joy can be found in music as Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ transports the internees from squalor into light. The friendships they build with the dozens of other women in the camps will give them the hope, strength and camaraderie they need in order to stay alive.

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The indescribable hardships of these tough, courageous women, and their relentless battle for survival in the notorious camps, is rendered viscerally real as we follow them through years of starvation, brutality, illness, torture and death.

But far from being a tale of defeatism and despair, Sisters under the Rising Sun is a moving acknowledgement of the power of female friendships and shared adversity to soothe the soul, strengthen the will, inspire belief and ingenuity, and to find hope where many would believe there is none.

Brimming with emotional intensity and harrowing detail about the cruelties of camp life, the experiences of the women prisoners are not just a stark reminder of the wartime atrocities that took place in that corner of the world, but also a testament to the life-affirming and healing power of music and comradeship as the women find sanctuary in singing and organising concerts.

Immaculately researched, and written with the heartfelt compassion and care that Morris puts into all her novels, this is a story with important messages that still resonate loudly in the 21st century.

(Zaffre, hardback, £20)