Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

18 thoughts on “Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I might give this one a miss, like you I enjoyed Merivel, and also Rosie which is a sort of memoir of her family, but I do want to read more of her books.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I still have not begun to read Tremain but I was glad to read your review. Seeing as how we in America are currently dealing with a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character, I might not have as much trouble with Valentine Ross!

  3. Lexlingua says:

    I tried to remember where I’d heard of Rose Tremain before — and then recalled it was for Restoration. It’s a book I saw in the “literary classic” shelves often, but have failed to read it yet. Need to fix that! From your review, Islands of Mercy doesn’t seem too appealing to start Tremain with.

  4. Ann says:

    I agree; I have enjoyed Rose Tremain’s other novels much more. I think the story thudded along; she needed to do a thorough edit and remove 20-30% of the book. Also I didn’t find Jane to be that special; she was just educated and privileged.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this book was a disappointment. I agree that it definitely needed some editing! I didn’t like Jane much either – in fact, Clorinda was the only character I did like.

  5. Lynne Dickens says:

    I think Islands of Mercy is an enthralling and rich book. The theme of gender is powerfully presented in historical context and the strong female characters are brilliant. The men are seen as weak because of being trapped within the stultifying mold of power, pride, dominance and violence. I think the development of the plot and characters is realistic and as usual with Rose Tremain`s writing, there isn’t an extra word used that`s not essential. There are so many `scenes` in the book that are vivid and live on after finishing. The contrast between the ward where Emmeline has been abandoned to die and the wonderful freedom of Aisling on the beach in west of Ireland. I`ve read most of her work and this though I agree not as brilliant as Sacred Country, The Road Home, Trespass or The Gustav Sonatas to name but a few, it is better than Restoration, which is a romp. She is a major writer and one who takes on the big themes of life

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, Lynne. I always think it’s interesting that the same book can resonate so much with one reader and not with another! This one just wasn’t for me at all, but I have enjoyed most of the others I’ve read by Rose Tremain, including her new book, Lily, which I’m reading at the moment.

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