Friday 24 May 2019

White feathers and black times for nurse who shamed her lover in Great War

White Feathers by Susan Lanigan. Brandon, pbk, 420 pages, €14.99

Susan Lanigan, at Dubray Book Shop, Grafton Street to launch White Feathers. Photo: Colm Mahady / Fennells
Susan Lanigan, at Dubray Book Shop, Grafton Street to launch White Feathers. Photo: Colm Mahady / Fennells

Anne Cunningham

In this centenary year of the Great War, one would need to be deaf, dumb and blind not to encounter some slice, somewhere, of WW1 history.

Whether it be from the many documentaries, or Jeremy Paxman's book of his own TV series (Great Britain's Great War), or from just a peek at the 'White Feathers' episode of Downton Abbey, WW1 rages on, it seems, at least as a media event.

Lest we forget, I suppose. But of course we forgot very quickly, or there wouldn't have been a World War II.

After the outbreak of The Great War, a particularly treacherous group of women (many of them Suffragettes) took to publicly bestowing white feathers - a traditional symbol of cowardice - on men who had not enlisted.

When this book's heroine, Eva Downey, is compelled to publicly shame her lover by presenting him with his own white feather, the consequences for all concerned, are - to quote Wilfred Owen - as "Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud".

Eva is later married off to a brutish rapist of a husband who is himself shot for cowardice in the trenches.

Newly-widowed and destitute, she returns to her father's house, only to discover that she's essentially left to fend for herself. She enlists as a nurse, travelling from one war-ravaged front to another, tending to the wounded and the maimed, while continuing to look for the man she was forced to betray.

Showy research in novels can be tedious, leaving the reader blinded by the effort and wanting for the tale. But not so with this meticulously-researched book. Lanigan is as confident with plot and character as she is with historical setting.

While some scenes in the novel are harrowing, this book is - among other things - an eloquent protest at the wanton waste of a generation in the name of. . . well, does anybody know what, exactly?

Susan Lanigan has been short-listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award three times in recent years. She is a gifted young writer, and White Feathers is an admirable debut.

Both available with free P&P on or by calling 091709350


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