“Islands of Mercy” by Rose Tremain
A story set in 1865, told across two time zones; two quite separate but connected lives revealed to the reader.
Jane Adeane, a doctor’s daughter and nurse resides in Bath helping her father in his practice. She is much loved by her patients, even known as the “Angel of the Baths”, but life is mundane, but fulfilling. However a surprise proposal of marriage from her father’s assistant, Dr. Valentine Ross, leads Jane to flee the city to stay with her much loved Aunt in London.
Emmeline Adeane is an artist and free spirit and introduces Jane in to her society where she discovers love with Julietta, the wife of a publisher. Her conventional life is turned upside down while she sits demurely, the subject of her aunt’s latest painting. She eventually returns somewhat reluctantly to help her father, whose household has disintegrated after the departure of Jane who ran all things smoothly and efficiently.
Valentine Ross himself is an important figure throughout the book, he is devastated after Jane walks out of the tea room in which he had proposed to her. The tea room is a new venture run by Irish immigrant Clorinda Morrisey, and he entices her to help Dr Adeane by providing pies for the household after the departure of their cook. She in her own right, after starting out as a very minor character, grows in importance, and provides her own sub-story as the novel develops.
Meanwhile out in Borneo we meet Sir Ralph Savage, a British “rajah” with eccentric tastes, lavish spending, and his servant, and bed companion, Leon. Savage is master of all he surveys, but is also a puppet to Leon’s whims. Into their grand household comes Edmond Ross, a naturalist who is recovering from malaria, and it is here the two parts of this novel are loosely connected by the siblings. We learn about Valentine and Edmund’s upbringing, as ever Rose Tremain provides her readers with very full characterisations of her principal individuals.
Back in England, Jane a reluctant returnee to Bath and conformity agrees to marry Valentine, and how this arrangement against the back ground of her passion for Julietta unfolds whilst we witness the lives of her father and Clorinda provide a very fulfilling read as their lives are revealed to the reader.
The Borneo story sees Savage and Leon pursue personal egotistic projects, fight disease in the ever invasive jungle and the threats to life and livelihood.
Rose Tremain is a storyteller of note, her novels, diverse in subject and time-setting. In “Islands of Mercy” she uncovers the lives and loves of a myriad of characters. Her historical settings as ever seem perfect, and this satisfying read will delight her faithful readership.