In Bath, England in 1865, such are Jane Adeane’s nursing skills that she is known as the Angel of the Baths. Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain is about Jane’s destiny to make something of herself, a journey which involves choosing between a tempestuous love affair with another woman and marriage to a respectable doctor. Being the Angel of the Baths is not enough for her and this impacts on the lives of everyone around her.
Islands of Mercy is in fact three stories in one, lightly linked together by the merest connection and fleeting physical meeting. The story starts with Clorinda Morrissey who arrives in Bath from Ireland. ‘She was not beautiful, but she had a smile of great sweetness and a soft voice that could soothe and calm the soul’. By selling a ruby necklace, a family heirloom, Clorinda sets up what becomes a highly popular tea room. It is in this tea room that she first sees Jane Adeane who is taking tea with a man. Jane leaves abruptly and Clorinda is curious why. The man concerned is Doctor Valentine Ross, medical partner of Jane’s father Sir William Adeane and brother of naturalist Edmund Ross, currently pursing butterflies in the Malay Archipelago. In this scene, all three storylines are kickstarted.
The narrative moves back and forth from Bath to London, Dublin and Ireland’s west coast to Borneo. Each place is drawn vividly, Tremain is excellent at settings. In her descriptions of heterosexual and homosexual relationships, she explores the social limitations of the time on the free expression of love for men and women. While Jane can explore her own feelings for another woman only in extreme secrecy and risk of rejection by society, in Borneo a rich ‘rajah’ and his dependent servant live openly. Can Jane make her own way in the world or must she be conventional and marry a man. And can Clorinda’s independence at the tea shop continue or will she come to regret her sale of the ruby necklace. Is money necessary for happiness.
This is an unpredictable read. As Jane’s father Sir William comments, ‘We are overtaken by flashes of lightning and brilliant storms, and we can only submit.’ All the characters act on impulse and not all their decisions make sense, in particular Valentine’s behaviour changes so rapidly he seems a different man.
I was left with mixed feelings. As a Tremain fan dating back to The Colour, I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. The writing, as always, is of the highest quality but it feels like three novels squeezed into one. I wanted to read more about Clorinda’s story, or concentrate on Jane, rather than go to Borneo which felt like an interruption to the main narrative.
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