When a young woman woke after two days in a field hospital in France during World War I, she did not remember who she was. She thought that her name might be Stella Bain and she felt that she had worked as a nurse. It quickly is apparent that she was an American, although she wore the uniform of a British nurse's aid.
"Stella has no idea where she has come from. She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open. But no one's entire past can be unhappy, can it? It might contain unhappy events or a tendency toward melancholy, but the whole cannot be miserable."After spending a month in the hospital, Stella began to work there as a nurse's aid.
"The sight is awful, the sound hollow. Almost all the men die.During her off-time, Stella began to do sketches and portraits. However, her private drawings are what make her wonder about her past. Then one day, she overheard a man mention the Admiralty, a building in London. It triggered something for her. After several months, Stella was granted a leave and she decided that she would go to London to the Admiralty to see if she could learn what significance it seemed to hold for her.
Sometimes, the doctors' screams are louder than the patients'."
When Stella arrived in London, she was noticed by a kind woman named Lily. Stella was quite ill and Lily had seen her leaning against a fence. Lily asked Stella to her home and once there, Lily and her husband August took her in and cared for her. August was a cranial surgeon and began to take interest in her. August had been reading about "talk therapy" and was interested in seeing if it might help Stella recall her past. He also had connections and was willing to take her to the Admiralty to help her discover what it was that seemed to draw her there. And finally after several visits there over time, as Stella and August are leaving the Admiralty, someone calls out "Etna Bliss"...and Stella recognizes the name and then, the person who called it out. And she remembers.
"'I have children', she says."
The story then goes back into time from 1896-1915, telling Stella's history. A history of lost love, domestic abuse, and betrayal.
The last chapter of the book takes place in 1930.
"How strange this happiness, the pain of it. Aware of minutes, she remembers years. She would remember every hour if she could. To live a life and then recall that life in equal time. What a thought" She wishes it could be done."