Well-known English writer, Rose Tremain‘s latest novel, Islands of Mercy explores the concept of places of safety, and contrasts two very different storylines – tenuously connected – in an attempt to explore what it means to have a meaningful life. Unfortunately, while the settings are richly drawn, both plotlines are ponderous and the book fails to excite.
In Islands of Mercy, readers are first introduced to Clorinda Morrissey, an Irish emigrant who has travelled to Bath in the mid-Victorian era to escape the poverty and famine. She sells a family heirloom and starts a tearoom, a place where people can come for the comfort and sanctuary that such a place provides. There, she witnesses an interaction between Dr Valentine Ross and the daughter of his employer, a woman named Jane Adeane who is also known as the ‘Angel of the Baths.’
Jane, supposedly the main character of the book, has earned this nickname because she has a reputation for being able to heal the patients she escorts to the Roman baths that the city is named for. She is extraordinarily tall, and this may go some way towards explaining why she is still unmarried at twenty-five. The interaction between the two witnessed by Mrs Morrissey is a marriage proposal. Jane rejects the unfortunately named Valentine, and, making her excuses, goes to stay with her aunt Emmeline – also a spinster, but an independently wealthy one, thanks to a previous love affair.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world in Borneo, Valentine Ross’s brother Edmund finds himself in the orbit of the eccentric ‘Rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage. These two storylines are supposedly linked in theme, but this link is not a particularly strong one. Edmond Ross is at best a minor character, and Ralph Savage a rather unlikable one.
There are, however, many parallels between his story and Jane’s, the most obvious being their sexuality. Jane experiences a sexual awakening at the hands of Julietta, who is the wife of a publisher friend of Emmeline’s. Julietta’s preference for having sex with women is hardly a secret, though her husband may be feigning ignorance or may actually not know. She introduces Jane to a world of bodily pleasure, but encourages her to go back to Bath and accept Valentine Ross’s offer so that she may also experience the joy of being a wife and mother.
Savage, on the other hand, has a rather predatory relationship with a young Malay man named Leon, who is himself using the ‘Rajah’ for his money to become the foreman of a cannery he has convinced Sir Ralph to build. Sir Ralph also seems to have some designs on Edmund, and enjoys listening to the younger man reading to him from the Bible. This relationship is ended, however, when Edmund disappears. The two same sex couples seem to have been put into the novel purely for shock factor. And in the case of the Borneo plot line, readers are shown quite a negative portrayal of gay love.
Perhaps the best way to describe this novel would be an attempt at mixing a Jane Austen novel (though none of the those published) with Heart of Darkness. It is atmospheric and the settings are excellent; however many of the characters are either unlikable or bland. And in the case of the Borneo plotline, it is very hard to understand what is actually going on.
The Bath plotline, while easier to follow, was hindered by the fact that Jane made for a very uninspiring heroine. Her passivity was such that every event which happened, happened to her and not really because of her. It was hard to see why Valentine was so enthralled with her. Likewise, the character of Valentine was suddenly transformed into an antagonist midway through the story, which felt strange and unbelievable.
I could quite easily have read a whole novel about Clorinda Morrissey, however this was not to be the case.
Sadly, this novel did nothing for me, and if you are looking for a sumptuous, feminist historical fiction, I suggest you keep looking. Then again, if Jane Austen writing Heart of Darkness sounds like your cup of tea, then this might just be for you.