It begins with a short but vividly drawn scene: two lovers alone in a room in Paris in 1917.

Sensorily rich and broadly sketched: the reader is immediately engaged.

Not only by the substance, but by a couple of unexpected phrases therein: questions arise.

Those questions are soon set aside however, for the narrative moves immediately into Iris Hogan’s voice, into the present day.

Iris has sat down on the ground holding a young sugar glider, not obviously injured but close to death. “You should be with your mother,” Iris says.

Readers pause with her but then, fortunately, a young man passes by and helps Iris to her feet; she is not of an ideal age to be crawling about on footpaths rescuing small creatures.

When she returns home with the sugar glider, a letter awaits, inviting her to a ceremony at Royaumont, sixty years after the war ended, after les dames écossaises de Royaumont cared for soldiers in the abbey there.

And, readers pause once more, follow Iris into memory.

In Falling Snow Maccoll

2012; Penguin Canada, 2013

In just a few pages, readers know that In Falling Snow is about love and passion, care-taking and healing, chance encounters and faraway places.

It’s also about the unexpected bits (like what makes that woman feel briefly ashamed of her passion, the way a four-legged furry creature can fly as though it is feathered, and how women – young and old – behave contrary to expectations of them).

Readers feel privileged to know these things about Iris, because some who are much closer to her do not know of her past at Royaumont; she has not spoken of her involvement in the abbey hospital during the Great War.

Actually, she has deliberately concealed this information, partly because it was not universally accepted for women to behave in such an unfeminine manner in those times.

Declaring herself part of the Royaumont effort required a great deal of courage, aligning herself with women who were open supporters of suffrage (although some of the Royaumont women did not support that cause) and women who dared to become doctors.

“When I told Violet that I felt admiration for and even an affinity with these women, she didn’t, as I feared she might, recoil. ‘Who wouldn’t be a boy given a chance?’ she said. ‘That’s the country where all the real living is, after all.’”

Readers do not question Iris’ secrecy about her experiences, because she has already proven herself openly compassionate even when in a weakened state herself; she is received as a trusted narrator from the start, and her authenticity welcomes readers into the novel, despite lingering questions.

The narrative settles into Iris’ story long enough to give a sense of her early experiences in France; at her age, she slips between past and present readily, and the letter provokes more memories than usual.

“Life reaches a point where you no longer wish to dig about in the earth of the past to find what might have made you grow the way you have. Or how you might have been different. There’s no going back at my age.”

But Iris finds herself pulled back to the earth of the past more often than she wishes.

And Grace, too, has a rather fragmented view, even in contemporary times and at a younger age, slipping between the demands of work (she works in obstetrics, which recalls Mary-Rose MacColl’s first book of non-fiction, The Birth Wars) and family, with her own high expectations to meet as well.

It’s 1978, no longer surprising to find a woman like Grace employed as a doctor, but by the time she arrives at Iris’ house later that day, she is tired and edgy, surprised by the invitation to Royaumont that Iris has received.

During the Great War, one did not expect to find hospitals staffed entirely by women, on the margins of the conflict. In the 1970s, one did not expect a female doctor to challenge the authority of a male doctor.

Both Iris and Grace have experiences working within a system which requires carefully negotiating the established male hierarchy; each woman learns that traditionalism can erect barriers (or, at least, cause delays and pose challenges).

Each woman also confronts the vulnerability of children (including teenage brothers) and wrestles with the responsibility of caring for another who is weaker (either naturally, circumstantially or professionally).

In some respects, this is about mothering, but more broadly it is about nurturing, caring for one another as human beings. (There are some poignant scenes in the hospital with global ramifications and urgent contemporary relevance regarding the cost of war and international politics.)

Each woman must consider the question of accountability, balance the question of personal integrity with the broader question of societal expectations and demands, and weigh the risks involved with personal decisions of life-and-death importance.

Each depends upon others – and each other – in ways that they would not have anticipated, and the seams between the narratives serve to boost the readers’ attachment to both women.

“Here was Grace crying about a death for which I was almost sure she couldn’t be held responsible no matter what had happened, cheered by the fact she could chaperone an octogenarian on a trip to France. The poor girl needed an easier life.”

From that initial scene, readers are reminded that war stories are often love stories too. Readers do not have any understanding of that briefly sketched relationship; it could be a longterm passion or a chance encounter. And, in some ways, the nature of it, in that very moment, is of no consequence.

Chance encounters can intensely creative. Fascinating possibilities arise in the presence of the unexpected. Mary-Rose MacColl has written about her accidental discovery of a book about the history of Royaumont, having reversed two digits in a call number at the library, stumbling upon a book which inspired her to write a book of her own.

In its broadest terms, In Falling Snow is about the choices we make: the little everyday ones in the course of our quiet everyday lives, say, to help a small suffering creature when one is out for a walk, and the big ones which are unequivocally life-changing and, just as illustrated there, the simple idea that a small action can have a resounding impact on the life of another, can shift from seemingly fleeting to life-altering.

And, because Iris had other reasons for concealing her experiences at Royaumont, because past decisions reverberate with unexpected intensity in the present-day, it is a novel about forgiveness as well.

The characterization and setting are solid; readers are unwaveringly committed to Iris and Grace, and France in wartime is as vivid as contemporary life in Australia. The author’s research infuses the novel, never burdens it. Stylistically, the work is consistent and readable, with transitions between places and times (and memories) skillfully maneuvered.

There is much to recommend this novel, but what is truly remarkable is the ceaseless echo of relevance; Iris’ story resonates in Grace’s life (in ways that are not fully understood until the novel’s final pages), but the story of these two women resonates with contemporary readers as well.

Mary-Rose MacColl’s novel is not only accessible historical fiction but it is an amazing story, one all-the-more-amazing for being rooted in real courage and compassion, and for its urgent relevance to present-day readers.

IFOASmallBadgeMary-Rose MacColl appears this weekend in Toronto as part of the 34th International Festival of Authors.

She will participate in the “Adventures in Storytelling” Round Table on Saturday October 26 at 11am.

She will be one of five authors reading on Sunday October 27 at 2pm

This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration. 

Will you be attending? Or, perhaps adding this book to your reading list?