In many ways, this novel reminded me of Kate Morton, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Both authors are from Australia, and both use the dual narrative set up for their novels, focusing on relationships between women and mothers and daughters. Technically, Iris is Grace's grandmother but since Rose died during childbirth, she raised her as her own. The biggest difference is that to me, MacColl's novel didn't have the same page turner quality to it as Morton's novel. That doesn't mean this wasn't a fairly readable novel, but I didn't have that same need to find out what happened and how it all fit together. Morton's novels come with a mystery or a twist, and usually the catalyst is someone from a younger generation discovering something odd or mysterious about the past and deciding to dig into it - as a result, it's easy to get invested as a reader and keep reading till everything is revealed. In comparison, this felt more like Atwood's The Blind Assassin, revolving around an elderly woman's memories as she faces her death.
The novel shifts between the novel's present day, 1978, and World War I in France, and the two women, Iris and Grace. Grace is obstetrician, and is very much still surrounded by sexism in the medical profession as well as other antiquated views. Her grandfather was a doctor, her mother had been a med student, and Iris made sure Grace had all the right opportunities to follow them. Though Grace was more drawn to surgery, given the patriarchal views, gynecology made more sense. Grace's chapters deal with her struggles to balance work, an investigation into a possible mistake, her children, one of whom may have a medical problem, while also facing the fact that her grandmother will not be around much longer. The chapters focusing on Iris address both the present day, and her time in France during World War I. Trained as a nurse, Iris went to France to find her 15 year old brother who had lied about his age and enlisted, but she is quickly diverted by Dr. Frances Ivens, a surgeon in charge of a woman run hospital that enlists Iris as her administrator. The hospital, Royaumont, is what originally inspired the MacColl to write this story, and I enjoyed reading about this. However, in many ways Iris was rather naive and it is only later in the war, when the hospital starts getting victims that she realizes how awful the war truly is, rather than thinking of it as a noble endeavour. She tracks down her brother who is part of a postal unit, a comparatively safe assignment, and makes some friends along the way.
However, it is obvious that something must have happened, and that Iris is still plagued by regret and guilt. As it turns out, she has not shared much of her past with Grace at all, so Grace is surprised to discover Iris's role in World War I and Royaumont when Iris receives the reunion invitation. Additionally, she begins seeing her brother everywhere and confusing people with him. While it is not quite clear what happened, or why she cut ties with all the people from this period of her life, it soon becomes obvious that Iris did not bring her brother back home. However, given that it was World War I and the massive amounts of casualties during that war, I can't say I felt like there was too much mystery regarding his fate.
I think it was a very good call for MacColl to have Grace also be a doctor so that the reader could see how things at both become easier and stayed the same for women in the medical profession over the years. While Dr. Ivens had high hopes that their actions would help pave the way, it did not quite work that way as Grace still faced many of the same struggles. Iris was a very competent character, but I actually found her war time persona a bit too proper and boring, and enjoyed reading about Grace's struggles more than the parts about the war. I know I made comparisons to both Atwood and Morton but that really had more to do with structure and type of writing than the actual caliber of the writing. Overall, I liked the book well enough but think it will be ultimately forgettable - a pleasant past time but not more than that. I could see myself reading more about Royaumont but I already have way too much nonfiction I'm behind on.