The problem with Stella Bain is not necessarily the story. It is well-written, enjoyable, and interesting. The fault lies in the synopsis. The synopsis details only the first third of the novel as Stella struggles to regain her memories. Once she does that, the story veers in a completely different, and much unanticipated, direction. A reader expects one story and gets something else. The plot shift is disconcerting and, for readers unable to put aside any preconceived expectations, off-putting.
There is no doubt that Stella has strength of character and honor, given that she volunteers as a nurse during World War I well before her country officially becomes involved in the war effort. She is independent and fiercely driven, as seen by her reluctance to accept the Bridges’ help and her insistence obtaining entrance to the Admiralty. The story eventually reveals the source of her determination and courage in scenes meant to shock but ultimately not wholly unexpected given what readers know about Stella to that point. In fact, there are so many twists and shifts in narrative that they soon lose their ability to surprise and instead become predictable.
Where Stella Bain excels is in its discussion of shell shock, or in the current terminology post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even though the novel occurs in 1917-1918, its exploration of this mysterious illness is eerily timely as hospitals around the country struggle to help the hundreds of thousands of Gulf War and Afghanistan War military vets who battle this disorder every day. While more is known about the injury today, a reader gets the impression that for many, public sentiment remains the same today as it did for Stella. Her very real physical pains and months-long total amnesia show insight into the types of vague and haunting torture sufferers face daily.
Stella Bain is a relatively simple novel that attempts to tackle too many weighty topics, of which shell shock and its physical manifestations are just one example. Stella’s story also covers abusive marriages, love, friendship, maternal instinct versus the need for independence, gender norms of the 1910s, and more. The fact that the story shifts its focus from amnesia and rediscovery to something completely different may cause some discomfort because it happens so suddenly. Ultimately, the story is too ambitious and does not do adequate justice to its heavy subject matter.