June/July 1998

Sister Josephine

Joanna Traynor
Bloomsbury, 1997, 216pp
ISBN: 0 7475 3377 6

review by Ann Skea

"School. I destroyed lessons. Only the Latin mistress
could hold me, could lick a whip of the tongue faster
than I....None of the other teachers could go the full
forty minutes. They were scared of me."

Josie Milner/O'Leary was a teacher's nightmare. A smart, 'lippy', tough kid from a tough foster-home, in a tough area. Good with her fists and with her boots, too. Not at all the sort of girl you would recommend for a nursing career.

Nursing, however, is exactly where Josie ended up. Railroaded into it by the new foster-parent she acquired after an incident during which Josie's first, fanatical, church-going 'Mum' found her diaries: "two whole years of mindless filth" - no matter that they were entirely a work of fiction.

After Josie's graphic account of her childhood experiences, which she tells with her characteristic bluntness and cynical wit, nursing might seem like an orderly, gentle profession. For Josie, it isn't. Whilst her fellow student nurses are

"Shipshape, all present and correct. Hair brushed to death. Stinking of perfume. Blase and Youth Dew"

Josie's behaviour is as non-conformist as her grubby pumps, laddered tights and "origami" hat, which is "not much bigger than an empty bog roll, anyway" and barely visible in Josie's 'Afro' hairstyle.

It is Josie's behaviour, rather than her colour, which distinguishes her from the others, although growing up black in a white family, in a white neighbourhood, clearly had much to do with her toughness. Joanna Traynor gives a believable account of what it might be like to grow up like this. And toughness, plainly, is what is needed in nursing, as well as compassion.

Nurses' shop-talk, in general, is not for the squeamish. And Nurse Josephine O'Leary is not one to mince words. She tells it as it is, often in gruesome and revolting detail, but it is a tribute to Joanna Traynor's writing that we remain more interested in Josie herself, her reactions and her complex personality, than in her job. Josie's character is skilfully and carefully developed. Clearly, Traynor has used her nursing experience and her degree in psychology to good effect in this, and she deservedly won the SAGA Prize (awarded to an unpublished Black British novelist) for this story.

This is a remarkable first novel, its main weakness being a rather contrived dramatic episode which hinges on the actions of two caricature baddies named Tokyo Jo and Arnie. A little more subtlety, here, would have paid dividends but, overall, Sister Josephine is a well-written and very readable book.

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