Sensitive, sheltered twins Iris and Dorothea Crosby are deeply affected when circumstances lead them to help in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They are reclusive, poetic characters who shun the parties and glitter of New York society and have always turned to each other for comfort and company. When the Great War breaks out in France shortly after the fire, the twins seek to bring meaning to their lives by volunteering as nurses at the front. The horrors they witness change them forever, and make returning to their former life impossible.
Seebohm’s slim, haunting book is more than a chronicle of American upper-class guilt over the suffering of humanity. It is a searing glimpse into the effect that a senseless war can have on susceptible human beings. Through clever manipulation of voices and point of view, Seebohm lays the souls of the twins bare, drawing the reader into the vortex of their tragic world view.
The author’s clear, elegant prose is at first somewhat distancing, as she lays out the setting from which the twins depart. But as the reader progresses through the novel, the quickly sketched-in opening with its reportage style is reinterpreted—like the exposition of a symphony—by what follows.
So often, historical novels that focus on minor characters in great events can seem peripheral and contrived. But Seebohm succeeds entirely in giving us a unique perspective on a tragedy of vast proportions in human history.