Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of two previous books, the much-praised “Easter Island,” part of which is set during World War I, and the well-plotted social commentary “Strangers at the Feast.” For her third novel, “The Secret of Raven Point,” Vanderbes turns her attention to the experiences of Juliet Dufresne, a teenage science geek who leaves home to search for her beloved brother Tuck. A football hero and general charmer, Tuck signed up, along with many of Charlesport, S.C.’s youth, and is missing in action. The year is 1944, the battlefield is Italy and the only way that 17-year-old Juliet can get there is to lie about her age and enlist as a nurse.
Adding a touch of mystery is a series of letters from Tuck, letters that make reference to odd little secrets shared between the siblings since childhood. One mentions the eponymous Raven Point. Clinging to these letters and a stubborn hope, Juliet makes her way into the tents, romantic entanglements and complex friendships of these field hospitals — and, of course, into adulthood.
Juliet is, by nature, resilient. Courtesy of an unattractive (and possibly unnecessary to the narrative) birthmark on her face, she has never expected life to be easy. This makes her a compelling chronicler of the realities of the mobile medical units in Italy as the war races toward its conclusion: Juliet is alert to the pain and shock that wounded soldiers endure, yet unblinking and practical. Her world is characterized by amputations and bedpans, hasty affairs between single nurses and married doctors, encounters with starving civilians and drunken soldiers.
Into this world comes Pvt. Barnaby, a man who — by all logic — should be dead but has somehow survived an injury that has left him completely incapacitated except for the vision in one eye. Barnaby is unwilling to participate in any interaction: no physical response, no speech. When he becomes Juliet’s responsibility, she is befriended by Dr. Willard, an army psychiatrist who is trying to help Barnaby recover from whatever trauma has rendered him catatonic. This is the real mystery in the book, and it is here that the narrative heats up. War gives men and women a chance to become monsters or heroes, and Vanderbes finds her footing exploring these two extremes.
One of the ambitions of a war narrative is to grapple with the abstractions of large-scale conflict and personalize it: to take the dry stuff of history — facts, figures, coordinates — and reconstitute it by providing the body counts with bodies, the coordinates with actual landscapes, and the general destruction with visceral human experience. By this measure, Vanderbes performs admirably. Hers is an Italian countryside of “smashed and frayed” trees, on whose branches the “birds had gathered thickly, as though in sympathy.”
Juliet, charged with disposing of an amputated leg, makes sure “its hairs didn’t rub between her cuffs and gloves.” Most compellingly, Vanderbes narrates the erosion of spirit that results from being a doctor or nurse given the task of mending soldier’s bodies, of going “without sleep for days to save men so they can get shot at again.”
Another good reason to write war novels — or any novels with a historical context — is to go back and fill out the past with people who, marginalized by the prejudices and beliefs of the time, have also been banished from the narratives. “The Secret of Raven Point” fulfills on this level, as well. Bullying and abuse of authority create some of the most compelling tension in this book: As Juliet searches for the answer to what happened to Tuck, she uncovers several other secrets. And she is a companionable protagonist — adventurous, compelling and honest.
At times, the narrative strains to fulfill the promise of its premise: that Juliet’s love for Tuck is what motivates her to find out what mysteries the silent Pvt. Barnaby holds deep within him. Indeed, in a novel of complicated relationships, the attachment of Juliet to her brother feels overly naive, even if it is, ultimately, by design. And Juliet’s search for Tuck is really a subplot, despite the novel’s efforts to convince the reader that this sisterly devotion is what drives her.
What are ostensibly the “mystery” elements — a stray glove, a coded letter, a truth-producing drug — sometimes interfere with the character-driven momentum of the story. But Juliet is a vital narrator with a fresh, compelling perspective. Her young spirit keeps afloat what could descend into dirge, and she emerges from the experience as someone altered yet not conquered by war.
Murray’s most recent book is the story collection “Tales of the New World.”
THE SECRET OF RAVEN POINT
By Jennifer Vanderbes
306 pp. $26