The Island Nurse, by Mary J. MacLeod
I requested to review The Island Nurse specifically after hearing an interview with the eighty-year old author, Mary J. MacLeod, promoting her début book on my local Cornish radio station. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. The Island Nurse is an autobiography written by Mary J. Macleod, telling the story of her life on the remote Scottish island of Papavray in the 1970’s.
The book begins with Mary J. and her family (husband and two sons) visiting the island for a holiday and developing a dream of living on Papavray, instead of returning to their urban life in the south of England. This dream soon becomes a reality when they mention it to a local, who then helps them set down their roots on the island, finding them a home and work.
The Island Nurse is made up of many different stories and tales telling Mary’s life as, obviously, a nurse on the island of Papavray. Each chapter is a seemingly self-contained story for the majority, although there are a few exceptions. As the district nurse, Mary J. is always at the centre of chaos in one way or another, and many an incident seems to happen whenever she is near. And there is no shortage of drama, in both Mary J’s work and personal life. She must bring up her two young boys on the island, whilst juggling the ups and downs of her busy working life – not an easy feat.
As you would expect, there is plenty of humour in each story, however one or two of the tales are really very touching, and shocking. For example, the discovery of a half-starved woman chained to her bed in the attic inside one of the island homes leads to a harrowing tale of discovery about one broken family. There a varying selection of patients that Mary J. attends to, but towards the end on the book there are more elderly patients that are reaching the end of their lives on the island. She does not hold back, filling in the blanks of how a bitter old man came to live and die alone, refusing all help, on the island of Papavray. Because The Island Nurse is written in the present, concerning the past, Mary J. is able to add an extra paragraph dictating the outcome of each situation; this is especially useful for feeding my curiosity when the outcome of an immediate situation in uncertain.
On a lighter note, the conversations that take place between Mary J. and the island locals became a constant source of amusement for me throughout the book; the inclusion of regional dialect gives a real sense of their Scottish accent. Through her work she meets all of the islanders; they all have little habits that the reader comes to recognise. There is one character that continuously says one strange word, when meaning something entirely different; in the end they don’t bother to correct her. Another smokes an often unlit pipe, filled with matches. Papavray is a place where everyone knows everyone, and gossip spread quickly.
The standout factor in every tale is the scenery of each unique location; snow on the hilltops, waves lapping at the shore, skylarks chirping, a horse munching on fresh hay, the white crofter’s cottages with smoke rising from their chimneys and so on. It is a world away from town and city life most of us are used to.
The ending left me feeling as if there was much more for Mary J. to share with her readers and I sincerely hope she does continue to write more about her unconventional life! I thoroughly enjoyed The Island Nurse, and would whole-heartedly recommend it to any age group (my mum is reading it next!). The covers suggest that fans of Call the Midwife will enjoy this, but I think anyone can pick it up and enjoy and envy Mary J’s story. It is a perfect summer read!