In “Islands of Mercy”, Rose Tremain transgresses boundaries of nations and bodies to bring us a cast of characters on a global stage. At its heart is Jane, a nurse in Bath who, for her renowned caring skills, is known as The Angel of the Baths. Yet she seeks another destiny, throwing off the prospect of a conventional marriage for artistic and bohemian London. At the other end of the world, in Borneo, is Sir Ralph Savage – an eccentric, cast out by society, whose attempts at local philanthropy are thwarted by man and nature.
Both Jane and Ralph seek solace – social and sexual – and as Tremain interweaves the quiet atmosphere of the tea-room with the altogether wilder and more violent rainforest, their stories map across each other via the slums of Dublin and the fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.
Set in 1859, “Islands of Mercy” reflects, nevertheless, issues that continue into our own age. As Stephanie Merritt, writing in The Observer, puts it:
“[I]n her portrayal of the ways in which individual longing and frustration unfold against the constraints of forces beyond our control, Tremain has long been one of our most accomplished novelists, and here is further confirmation.”
It’s an extraordinary achievement.
Hardback, Vintage Publishing, £18.99 – signed copies available
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