It’s 1942 and World War II fighter pilot Dom Benson is recovering in hospital after being injured in a plane crash. It is here that he meets Saba Tarcan, a talented young singer who has come to entertain the wounded soldiers in Dom’s hospital ward. Saba and Dom are instantly attracted to each other but before their relationship has a chance to develop, Saba passes an audition to join ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) and is sent to North Africa to perform for the troops.
Soon after her arrival in Cairo, Saba is approached by the Secret Service and finds herself agreeing to spy for them. She is under strict orders not to tell anyone about her mission, but when Dom returns to action with the Air Force and is also sent to Egypt will their relationship be able to withstand Saba’s secrets?
I love reading novels set during World War II and I particularly enjoy those that approach the subject from an unusual perspective or cover aspects of the war that we don’t often hear about. Jasmine Nights does both, so it really should have been a book that I loved. Unfortunately it wasn’t. I had no problems with the style of Julia Gregson’s writing, I thought the settings – wartime Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul – were fascinating to read about and there was certainly enough material here to form a compelling story. It just lacked that special spark that would have transformed it into a book that I could wholeheartedly recommend.
Individually, both Saba and Dom are interesting, complex characters. Despite her strict Turkish father disapproving of her choice of career, Saba is ambitious and determined to fulfil her dreams of becoming a successful singer and escaping the monotony of her life in Wales, even if it means losing contact with her family. After joining ENSA, Saba is forced to juggle her relationship with Dom, her singing career and her desire to serve her country and help the war effort. Over the course of the novel, she has to make some difficult decisions and try to decide which of these things is most important to her. Dom also has an interesting story of his own and we see him struggling to come to terms with the idea of flying again after his crash and his guilt about escaping death when some of his close friends were not so lucky.
I liked both main characters but their romance never felt very natural or believable to me. A wartime love story should be very emotional but this one left me unmoved and I would have preferred more focus on the spying storyline instead. I knew female entertainers sometimes acted as spies during the war, but I’ve never read about the subject in a novel before and this was what had initially attracted me to this book. Sadly, I found this aspect of the story disappointing too. There was a lot of build up but it seemed to take such a long time before Saba found herself in any real danger and for a book about war and espionage it was strangely unexciting, without any of the suspense and tension I would have expected.
I did enjoy the descriptions of life as part of ENSA and the variety of colourful characters Saba meets in the troupe, including Janine the dancer, Willie the comedian and one of the other singers, Arleta, who becomes a good friend of Saba’s and was probably my favourite character. But this was not enough to rescue the book for me and I just felt that there was not enough depth, not enough emotion and none of the magic I was hoping for in a book that had sounded so promising.