I enjoyed Caroline Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman, but even if I hadn’t already known that I liked her writing I would have been drawn to The Metal Heart anyway by that beautiful cover! Books don’t always live up to their covers, of course, but I think this one almost does.
Set during World War II, the novel takes as its inspiration the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. Around this, Caroline Lea has created a fictional story involving two identical twin sisters, Dorothy and Constance – known as Dot and Con. The sisters have very different personalities but are devoted to each other, so when Con suffers a traumatic experience which leaves her afraid to be around other people, the two of them leave their home in Kirkwall on mainland Orkney and take refuge on the small, uninhabited island of Selkie Holm. Needless to say, Con is not at all happy when hundreds of Italian prisoners arrive on the island, along with their guards, and when a romance begins to blossom between Dot and Cesare, one of the Italians, the sisters’ bond becomes strained.
The novel is written from several different perspectives, giving Con, Dot and Cesare each a chance to tell their own side of the story. Despite their identical appearance, the twins have opposite outlooks on life – Dot is warm, friendly and trusting, while Con, understandably, is withdrawn, cautious and slow to trust. There is a romantic element to the novel, of course, but although the love story between Dot and Cesare is important, its real significance is in the impact it has on the relationship between the sisters. When we first meet Dot, she has sacrificed her own freedom and happiness for Con’s sake, but over the course of the novel, through her romance with Cesare – and also her work in the prisoners’ hospital on the island – she must find a way to lead her own life while helping Con to lead hers.
Although the author has changed some of the historical and geographical details, such as names and dates, we know that there really was a prisoner of war camp in Orkney and that the Italian prisoners really did create a chapel from metal and concrete, which can still be seen on the island of Lamb Holm today. Through the story of Cesare and the other prisoners, we see what conditions were like in the camp and the treatment they received from the guards, as well as their reaction to being ordered to build barriers to prevent further attacks on the harbour at Scapa Flow (these would become known as the Churchill Barriers). At the end of the book, Caroline Lea explains which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are fictional, but while I could understand why she adjusted the timeline to give the story more urgency, I couldn’t see why it was necessary to create a fictional island, Selkie Holm, when we know that the name of the island where the camp was located was Lamb Holm.
Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel (apart from the fact that it is written in the present tense, which is never going to be my favourite style). The descriptions of the Orkney Islands – the landscape, the sea, the people and the Orcadian folklore – are atmospheric and vivid; I have never been, but I’m sure it must be a fascinating place to visit. Of the two Caroline Lea books I’ve read, I preferred this one, although I did love the Icelandic setting of The Glass Woman too and will look forward to seeing where her next book will be set!
Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. The book will be published on 29th April 2021.
Book 21/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.