Thursday 28 September 2023



Title: Sisters Under The Rising Sun
Heather Morris
Bonnier Books UK, Zaffre
General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Womens Fiction
Release Date:
28th September 2023

In the midst of WWII, an English musician, Norah Chambers, places her eight-year-old daughter Sally on a ship leaving Singapore, desperate to keep her safe as the island falls to the Japanese Army.

Australian nurse Nesta James has enlisted to tend to Allied troops. But as Japanese troops overrun the island she joins the terrified cargo of people, including the heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the Vyner Brooke merchant ship. Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia, and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke has sunk.

After surviving 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. The camps are places of starvation and brutality, where disease runs rampant.

But even here joy can be found, in music, where Norah's 'voice orchestra' has the power to transport the internees out of the squalor and into the light. Sisters in arms, Norah and Nesta devote themselves to the women's survival while discovering their own extraordinary reserves of courage, love and strength.

Goodreads Link

I have seen the different countries covers for this book and I love them all though my favourite has to be the UK one. I think it will do its job of drawing your eye yo it on a bookstore shelf perfectly. The only negative and it's my own personal pet peeve is the circular sticker/label/logo stating the book is by the same author who wrote The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I need to mention the title of the book Sisters Under The Rising Sun, at first I thought 'Sisters' referred to the nuns, then thought it applicable to the nurses, by the end of the book I cam to realise it referred to all the women in the prison camp. They may have started out in their own groups, the nuns, he Dutch women, the native women, the nurses, the well off civilians, and the everyday civilians but they all ended up 'sisters' surviving together. Their very lives depending on the support from each other.

The book is set in the midst of WWII, Norah is an English woman who finds her only option to possibly secure the safety of her eight-year-old daughter Sally before Singapore falls under the Japanese army control is to place her in the arms of her older sister Barabara and send on a ship leaving Singapore. Norah promises little Sally that once her father John is able to leave hospital they will get on a boat and come straight for her.
Days later Norah, her husband John, who is still weak from suffering from typhus find themselves boarding a ship, the Vyner Brooke to flee Singapoore with her reluctant sister Ena who is leaving her husband Ken to care for their elderly parents. Also reluctantly leaving and boarding the Vyner Brooke are Australian nurses, amongst them Nesta James. After one last appeal to stay to care for the injured Allied soldiers in the hospital Nesta and her nurse colleagues are ordered to board the ship. The ship is crammed full and conditions are poor but the Australian nurses tend to anyone they feel they can help be they injured or just scared.
Just two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia. The order to abandon ship is given and once again it's the Australian nurses that jump into action helping people leave the ship. Once everyone has abandoned ship it's not long until the Vyner Brooke has sunk.
Different groups of survivors make their way to land by whatever means they can, holding onto each other or debris from the ship. There are the many different tales of how the Vyner Brooke survivors managed to get to shore, for example
Norah, Ena, John & little a 5 yr old June who has lost her mummy but has rapidly become attached to Ena. They end up briefly rescued by the RAF in a speedboat but are swiftly dropped at shore and handed over to and now at the mercy of the Japanese.

Once on land the different groups soon find themselves either handed over or captured by the Japanese. Initially men and women are together in there family/friend groups. Others have lost family either temporarily or permanently and are making new connections with those around them. They are all marched to the first of many camps where they meet other survivors who are now also prisoners at the mercy of the Japanese. Upon arrival at the camp the huts are allocated, with the Australian Nurses kept together but in different huts to the other survivors. At the camp though the men and women are separated they freely mix with each other during the day. Some of nurses explore the compound & return with the information that theres a dormitory that's suitable to be used as a hospital and has some Doctors already there. The nurses have of course immediately volunteered for duty there. One of the Doctors volunteers to speak to the Japanese soldiers about food, water & medical supplies.
Two women, Margaret Dryburgh and Mrs Hinch who were already at the first camp were already in the positions of 'command' and had the dubious and dangerous task of being I intermediaries between the women and the Male Ah Fat Japanese male who was to be the one who acted as interpreter between the women and the various camp commandants. It is Margaret Dryburgh who sorts those that were shipwrecked with suitable clothing.
Soon enough the men and women are sent to different camps, the heart break of being separated from loved ones only adding to the harsh reality of being prisoners of war and no longer in charge of their own lives. The women soon find theres little else they can do but to find ways yo get on with it. If that means carrying buckets of water from a nearby stream or growing vegestables when allowed go do so by the commander, then the women do it. Of course all the camps were places of starvation, brutality as well as death from disease. Complaints are met with violence, one day you are allowed to grow food and eat it, another day you can grow the food but it is for the soldiers and another day you aren't allowed to grow anything. Punishments were harsh, such as being forced to stand all day in the blazing sun, food taken from the whole camp, in fact a beating was a lesser punishment on some occasions.These women were living life by the whim of whichever commander was in charge of the camp they were in. It's no surprise morale was seriously low and that when Norah, a trained musician came up with the idea to create a voice orchestra. Not only did it give the women who wished to be part of it something to do, something to enjoy and look forward to, it also lifted the morale of all the other women too.

Though I confess to knowing very little the little bit I knew about Japanese Prisoner of War Camps it was based on the views of people older than myself, a partial episode of Tenko I watched many years ago, and perhaps a brief reference in books I have read. This is one aspect of World War 2 that is not taught, spoken or in my experience even referred to at school. I went through a whole range of emotions and feelings reading the book. There was the horror and disgust at how the women had to survive, from a heart wrenching revelation of few of the Australian nurses sacrificing their bodies for the 'use' of the Japanese soldiers for greater good of the many, as if no one stepped forward the whole camp would be starved to death. Then the dirt, squalor and uncertainty the women existed in. I think the voice orchestra provided not only something to pass time but something to nurture hope, an outlet for some defiance singing anthems including Land of Hope and Glory as well as evidence there was still some beauty left in the world.
Throughout the book different characters notice that close up most of the Japanese soldiers look like frightened boys, however though this suggests a human perhaps softer side they are quick to jump to attention and carry out orders, as well as regularly beating the prisoners. The way the soldiers and even the commander enjoys the women’s music and concerts also suggests a softer, homesick, civilian side to the Japanese soldiers. I think the women humanised the Japanese guards by giving them nicknames, such as grumpy to one who became incensed if he ever saw any of the women wearing lipstick! Or seedling, for the guard who brought the seeds, and seedlings for the women to plant in the vegetable patch that they were sometimes allowed to use produce from.
Another scene in the book is when Ah Fat becomes upset at the death of one of the women which gives you mixed feelings as on one hand you think oh he has got a heart but then on the other hand you are thinking perhaps he could have prevented her death or at least eased the women’s living conditions.

My immediate thoughts upon finishing the book were, that the book was amazing, so moving, and strangely interesting how the book says the women seemed to fair better than the men. A fantastic story telling of a group of women who bonded and banded together in unimaginable situations and conditions. How they lifted each other, gave each other hope and love. Not forgetting how brave they were to face every uncertain day.

Summing up, another must read book from Heather Morris based on true events that happened during WW2 an awful time in history. This time it is the story of those who find themselves in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp. Sisters Under The Rising Sun is an a story of the amazing bravery, friendship and resilience people seem to find and hold onto in the very deepest darkest of circumstances. Though this book is a fantastic read it should never be forgotten these were real people, some survived and came home to continue their lives, others never made it home from the camps.




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