“The Fire by Night,” by Teresa Messineo
(William Morrow, pp 302, $ 26.99)
Though all wars results in the same atrocious outcome, they are hardly similar in their origins. They often start with an incident, a provocation, appearing to be insignificant, but releasing long-repressed emotions, a process which makes take years to burn out. We celebrate May 8th, officially marking the end of WWII, and though the conflict has been over for more than 70 years, it still continues to consume us on the intellectual and spiritual levels. We still try to comprehend how the magnitude of atrocities was made possible. We remember the main perpetrators, their names synonymous with locations, whereas all the forgotten heroes and sacrificed populations are collectively remember as the casualties. Even in memory wars and history are unjust.
Upon reading “The Fire by Night,” Messineo’s remarkable and powerful debut novel, I could not help thinking about “Hidden Figures,” and how tenacious women made NASA’s spatial odyssey possible, and also “The English Patient” for the resilient tenderness the nurse displays towards her wounded soldiers, no matter the external circumstances. In “The Fire by Night,” we met a pair of unsung heroes, two nurses working on the front lines, one in Europe, Jo, and one in the South Pacific, Kay. Jo struggles to survive in a makeshift medical camp as German troops advance. Kay is kept captive in Manila at the hands of sadistic Japanese soldiers. Both women where friends in Nursing school and only when they come home do they realize that they now must fight a different kind of enemy, not only their own disillusion, trauma and losses, but also a world forever changed. A world they struggle to adjust to. One of the paradoxes of wars is that one can find endless resilience to fight a well-defined enemy. Life in freedom however may not be as extreme in terms of survival, keeping the enemy thinly veiled. Communities and friendships are paramount to heal wounds. The nurses rely on each other to survive. My reference to films was not random. The world of nurses in wars, their sacrifices and resilience in the face of the utmost atrocities, tending to others while striving for their own survival, have been broadly neglected. The novel deserves to find its way to the big screen. Like Messineo wrote for it.