Sister Viv by Grantlee Kieza

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Sister Viv is the latest novel written by Grantlee Kieza OAM. He held senior editorial positions at The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Courier-Mail for many years and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his writing.

He once said that Australian children were not being taught enough about the great characters – men and women – who made Australia what it is today.  Through his efforts he is hoping to address this deficit. This Walkley Award finalist is the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, including bestsellers Hudson Fysh, The Kelly Hunters, Lawson, Banks, Macquarie, Banjo, Mrs Kelly, Monash, Sons of the Southern Cross and Bert Hinkler.

By focussing on writing biographies, Kieza sheds light on some of the lesser-known historical figures who have shaped Australia as we know it, and whose stories should be told as part of Australian history.

When reading his story about an Australian nurse, Vivian Bullwinkle, the reader learns a little more about the war that was so close to our own shores. Through her experiences which included being a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II on the mainland of Southeast Asia and an island off Sumatra, the reader gains more of an appreciation of the losses Australian families experienced so close to home. This was an enemy that Australia had never experienced before as they fought ‘to a different set of rules’ (96).

Born in 1915 in a small South Australian farm town, Vivian Bullwinkle learned from her grandfather how you could push your body to do things that seemed impossible when your life depended on it. This lesson was to help her, at the age of twenty-six, when, as a nurse, she survived the massacre of her colleagues on Radji Beach, Banka Island during World War 2.  On that one day, 21 nurses were mown down by the Japanese. This does not include the men who met a similar fate.

Yet more hardship was to be endured during three and a half years as a prisoner of war where she suffered starvation, disease and cruelty while watching her fellow prisoners die one by one. She was to experience through these war years so much madness, badness, chaos and carnage. In north Borneo almost 2500 Australian prisoners of war would die in a series of forced marches (252). Of the sixty-five sisters who had evacuated Singapore on one boat, the Vyner Brooke, only twenty-four would survive.

Her time during the war occupies most of the story and is told in graphic detail. The reader is reminded of losses closer to our shores with the bombing of Darwin and Broome, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the loss of life from friendly fire on the ship taking Australian prisoners to Japan as well as a prisoner escape on mainland Australia, from the camp at Cowra west of Sydney.

Like the interpreter at the camp at the end of the occupation, the reader can only be amazed at the arrogance of the Commander of the camp when he said ‘Now there is peace, and we will all soon be leaving Sumatra…If we have made any mistakes in the past, we hope you will forgive us. Americano and English will be here in a few days. Now we will be friends’ (258). When rescued many of the nurses weighed only thirty kilograms.

The reader is told that after the war Vivian Bullwinkle returned to Australia and dedicated her life to nursing in memory of all her friends who had died. She became well known when her experiences were told especially as she was the sole surviving nurse from one horrific encounter.

To ensure that nurses like Vivian Bullwinkle and the many who lost their lives during Australia’s involvement in World Wars are remembered, in 2023 a bronze statue was erected at the Australian War Memorial of this dedicated nurse who suffered much in carrying out her duties. She is the first Australian female and nurse commemorated in this way. The message it gives is that Military nurses are loyal to the profession and country while working when and where others don’t or won’t (1).

This is a story of incredible courage and determination. Through telling the experiences of Vivian Bullwinkle, Grantlee Kieza highlights the dedication of all nurses to helping others, especially through the harrowing times of war. Sister Viv went on to continue working for the betterment of all nurses when she returned home to Australia and at the age of nearly sixty found herself once again in a war zone as one of twelve volunteers heading for Southeast Asia but this time to rescue Vietnamese orphans.

Although this is a story of one nurse, the names of many other men and women who experienced what Vivian Bullwinkle did are recorded in this book so they too can be honoured for their contribution in trying to keep Australia safe. This is a very sad tale but true which is part of Australia’s history and therefore should be known and remembered.

Sister Viv


by Grantlee Kieza

ABC Books HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 978-0-7333-4329-2



🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top