Book Review | Women in WW2 prison camp stick by one another

The Asian Age.  | Rachna Chhabria

The novel is based on a true story.

Cover photo of 'Sisters under the Rising Sun' by Heather Morris. (Image by Arrangement)

If I were to describe ‘Sisters under the Rising Sun,’ by Heather Morris, I would use the words: sisterhood, hope, bravery, human spirit, survival against all odds, resilience, unlikely heroes, friendship, and above all poignant.

Based on a true story, Sisters under the Rising Sun is a novel about women in war, not fighting the actual battle, but fighting nevertheless, in Japanese POW camps, fighting for their survival, snatching their lives from the cruel hands of disease and death every now and then, surviving inhuman and unsanitary conditions, all kinds of diseases and hardships, punishments and brutality from the soldiers, battling hunger and thirst, rain and heat, beatings and despair.

It’s 1942, Singapore has fallen into the hands of the Japanese army. English musician Norah Chambers sends her eight-year-old daughter Sally with her sister Barbara and her children, on a ship leaving Singapore, to keep her child safe.

As the island burns, Norah along with her husband John and her sister Ena join a cargo aboard HMS Vyner Brooke. On the ship they meet Nesta James an Australian nurse and her team of nurses. Nesta had enlisted in the Australian army nursing services. She was sent to Malaya with the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, serving second in command to Matron Olive Paschke in February 1941.

With the sound of bombing, shelling and relentless gunfire assailing Singapore, the terrified group of passengers, packed like sardines on the ship, are out at sea just for two days when their ship is bombarded and an explosion rips it apart. The passengers head for the lifeboats and rafts, many are separated from their loved ones. Some passengers cling to floating planks, some swim down the Banka Strait, to their destination, an island.

Sadly, the passengers who survive the bombing are all caught by the Japanese soldiers and incarcerated in camps. Just when the group manages to make the camps hospitable and liveable, they are shunted to a new camp, worse than the previous one and their struggle is a never-ending cycle.

In these camps Nesta and Norah form an unlikely friendship. Both women turn out to be made of sterner stuff. Nesta tending to the sick and the injured leads her troop of nurses in doing their nursing duties in these camps. Norah is always the first to clean sewers and drains, and make the camp a bit less unhygienic and also to prevent an outbreak of disease.

There are also other women in the camp, Mrs Hinch who is appointed the camp leader, always communicating with the sergeant in charge of these camps (Captain Seki and his translator Ah Fat), taking his orders to the people and their requests to him. Dr McDowell helping heal the ill and the injured, Audrey Owen, a New Zealander always assisting Norah, Sister Catherina one of the twenty-four nuns along with Mother Superior Laurentia and Margaret Dryburgh. Norah and Margaret keep the dwindling flame of hope flickering in these desolate camps with their music, plays and lyrics. Norah becomes the voice for Margaret’s music. Sadly, Margaret succumbs to an illness before the survivors can be rescued. They were captured on 12 February 1942 and liberated on 11 September 1945.

June, a five-year-old girl, whose mother didn’t survive the bombing of HMS Vyner Brooke, separated from her father, kind of adopts Ena and Norah as her replacement mothers. Their bond is both rare and precious.

Nesta diminutive in physical stature, towers over the other survivors due to her indomitable spirit, tenacity, determination and sense of ethics. She is a role model for everyone in the camp. Norah follows close behind. Together the two women join forces and do a lot to keep everyone alive in body, mind and spirit. Though the other women in the camp also chip in, both Nesta and Norah play a more stellar role in the camp. 

This novel is based on a true story. After I closed the book, I could only marvel at the research Morris has done and the gigantic task she had undertaken to interview the descendants and family of both Norah and Nesta. The book makes for a very emotional read.

Sisters under the Rising Sun

By Heather Morris


pp. 333; Rs 499