Ever more relevant with the centenary of the Gallipoli Landings coming up next year, Fiona McIntosh’s latest novel sweeps the reader back to World War I and to Turkey, where, in May 1915, British nurse Claire Nightingale is caught up in the turmoil and bloodshed as she tends to the wounded on a hospital ship anchored off Anzac Cove.
Deeply atmospheric, McIntosh’s eye for authenticity and detail is evident as the dangerous conditions in which the nurses carry out their life-saving duties is brought to life by the stench, the bombardment and bloody chaos, compounding the incessant heartbreak of helplessly having men they cannot save die, despite their best efforts, time after time. Dehydrated and starving, soldiers bunkered down in muddy trenches suffer dysentery and endure the mental anguish of witnessing less fortunate comrades maimed and blown apart by the shells raining down upon them.
When she insists on being at the frontline of the action where she can more effectively triage the injured, Claire Nightingale’s outrage at the lack of organisation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of handsome Australian Light Horseman Jamie Wren, desperately pleading for medical aid for the dying friend he has carried across the battlefield. The horrors of war contrast as the backdrop for a tender and evocative love story, the unexpected meeting of soul mates at a time when personal feelings are a luxury. The serendipity of falling in love and finding something wonderful in the unlikeliest of circumstances, gives meaning to lost soul Claire Nightingale’s hitherto empty life. The detachment and loneliness that brought her to care for strangers under foreign skies is breached by this chance meeting on a war-ravaged beach. The certainty of their love for each other gives her a reason to carry on living.
The three lives that intertwine in the book have bird imagery that is poignant and powerful. There is the serene calmness and beauty of Claire Nightingale, the resourcefulness and determination of Jamie Wren and the poetic and sacrificially brave ideals of dreamer Turkish soldier Açar Shahin, whose name is translated to mean “Hawk.” Jamie’s chance meeting with Açar, two strangers on opposite sides of the war, during an armistice to retrieve their respective dead, finds a common love of music that transcends language and they confide in each other their deepest secrets. The empathy between them will lead Claire to travel to Istanbul after the war, to return Açar’s prayer book, which saves Jamie’s life, to Açar’s father.
This trip to Istanbul is also a revelation of an exotic, ancient culture, rich in the scent of attar of roses and fragrant, mouth-wateringly melting Turkish Delight, introduces Claire to a very different possibility. Açar’s father, Professor Shahin, has his part to play in reuniting Claire and Jamie, where honour overcomes his own hopes for the future. Claire, whose heart tells her Jamie is still alive whilst the official records say otherwise, is determined to keep their arranged meeting on the 1st day of April after the war, at Langham’s Hotel in London. Having afternoon tea there had been her happiest childhood memory and Jamie had chosen the date with trademark Aussie humour as being the middle day between their respective birthdays.
Much loved for historical fiction romances such as The Lavender Keeper, McIntosh’s masterly handling of the First World War through the lives portrayed, is epic, gentle yet emotionally turbulent.
A testament to the unshakeable faith of love and a celebration of the wealth of different cultures, tragedy and suffering meld with love and hope for the future in an epic story of war and peace. A tribute to the lives lost in the war, but also to love itself – sensitive, poetically powerful and as gentle as the breath from a fluttering of wings.
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