The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

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the twins have opposite outlooks on life – Dot is warm, friendly and trusting, while Con, understandably, is withdrawn, cautious and slow to trust.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.

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Clare Carson has previously written a trilogy of thrillers (the Sam Coyle trilogy) set in contemporary Orkney. I haven’t read those, but the title and cover of her new novel, The Canary Keeper, caught my attention and when I investigated I found that this one is a historical crime novel, still set in Orkney but during the Victorian period. I love a good Victorian mystery, so of course I had to give it a try.

The story begins in London in 1855, with the body of Tobias Skaill being found dumped in the Thames. Witnesses report seeing the body thrown from a canoe – surely the work of an Esquimaux! The suspect has disappeared without trace, but it seems he may have had an accomplice: Birdie Quinn, a young Irishwoman who was seen walking in the area at the time. We, the reader, know that Birdie is innocent; she had only met Tobias for the first time the day before when he had tried to give her a message. Her presence by the river that night was a coincidence and she has certainly never had any dealings with Esquimaux. But how can she prove her innocence?

Birdie knows that when the law catches up with her, she will hang, so she turns for help to Solomon, a policeman with whom she was recently in a relationship before they went their separate ways. Solomon advises her to get away from London for a while – and with evidence linking the dead man with the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, that is where Birdie decides to head. Can she uncover the truth surrounding Tobias Skaill’s death and identify his killer in time to clear her own name?

The Canary Keeper explores so many interesting ideas and topics. First, there is Orkney itself and the many traditions, myths and beliefs that are unique to those islands and their people. Then there is the famous Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage, ending in tragedy when both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are lost. The Franklin Expedition takes place just a few years before the events of The Canary Keeper and as Birdie begins to investigate she find several surprising links between the doomed expedition and the murder of Tobias Skaill. The fur trade also plays a part in the story and, in the London sections of the book, we learn about some of the trade guilds and livery companies of the period.

Clare Carson also creates some interesting characters, at least on the surface. I found Birdie quite a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her scenes with Solomon, hoping that they might decide to give each other a second chance. There’s also Morag, whose unconventional lifestyle leads to her being labelled a witch, and the widowed Margaret Skaill who is determined to keep her husband’s shipping business going despite her inability to read and write. And yet, none of these characters ever came fully to life for me; there was a disappointing flatness throughout the novel, which I blame on the fact that it is written in third person present tense, probably my least favourite way for a novel to be written. I often find that it puts a distance between the reader and the characters and makes it difficult to engage on an emotional level, although maybe that’s just me.

There’s also a paranormal aspect to the novel, with Birdie experiencing visions and flashbacks, but I didn’t feel that these scenes added anything to the story. This could have been a fascinating book – and at times it was – but it wasn’t really for me.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

King Hereafter “Then she said, ‘Thorfinn!’ quickly, and moved to him; but had hardly got to his side before he loosed his fingers and thumbs and plunged them down to the mattress like spear-points.
‘No! Macbeth. Macbeth. Macbeth!’ The name reached her like sling-shot.
Groa said, ‘They are the same man. I should know. I married both.’”

I couldn’t wait to read this book having loved Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series so much when I read them last year. King Hereafter, her only standalone historical novel, is set in eleventh-century Orkney and Scotland (known at that time as Alba) and is based around the idea that Macbeth, the historical King of Alba, and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were the same person – Macbeth being Thorfinn’s baptismal name. Whether that might be true or not, the case she puts forward in this book is very convincing and obviously the result of an enormous amount of research. The novel follows Thorfinn throughout his entire life and along the way there are battles, both on land and at sea, fires, storms, births, deaths, political intrigue and even a race across the oars of a longboat. We also meet other historical figures of the time including King Canute and Lady Godiva – but at the heart of the story, for me, is Thorfinn’s love for his wife, Groa.

I loved this book, although the combination of unfamiliar history, complex politics and intricate relationships between the characters meant that it required a huge amount of concentration and a lot of referring to the centre pages of the book which contained three maps of Orkney, Alba and England, and two family trees. I would have been completely lost without these maps and charts; I found myself consulting them constantly – and even then there were some relationships that still weren’t quite clear to me. Added to the fact that my edition of the book had 880 pages (not the same as the one pictured here, by the way), it seemed to take me nearly as long to read this one book as it did to read the entire Lymond Chronicles! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, when a book is as good as this one is.

Before I go any further I should point out that King Hereafter is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and there is really very little resemblance between Dunnett’s story and Shakespeare’s, although she does quote from the play in the section headings and there are some references to events that are also in the play, such as ‘Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane’. Some of the basic plot points are the same – yes, Thorfinn/Macbeth becomes King of Alba after the death of King Duncan, for example, but the circumstances surrounding Duncan’s death are very different from the murder Shakespeare describes. And thankfully, Groa is a far more likeable character than Lady Macbeth. The three witches don’t appear either, though instead we have Groa’s son, Lulach, and his prophecies (I suspect that to really be able to make any sense of most of Lulach’s cryptic comments you need to know how the rest of the story is going to play out and to be familiar with some of the historical sources too).

I loved Thorfinn from his very first appearance. I could see some similarities between Thorfinn and Dunnett’s other heroes, Lymond and Nicholas, but in other ways he is quite different. This is the moment we meet him for the first time as a child, seen through the eyes of his foster father, Thorkel Fostri:

“Not the complaining Earl Brusi. Not the lovely young Rognvald his son. But a scowling juvenile, thin as a half-knotted thong, with a monstrous brow topped by a whisk of black hair over two watering eyes, thick as acorns.
It raised one arm and called. Its voice had not even started to break.

‘Thorfinn,’ said Thorkel, and the word itself was a groan. Here in Norway, here in Nídarós, here on King Olaf’s jetty was the child-Earl of Caithness and Orkney. His foster-son.”

We soon see that Thorfinn’s unattractive exterior hides a shrewd brain, great physical ability, wit, courage and, although we are told that he never laughs, a wry sense of humour too. He is capable of all the plotting, scheming and negotiating that is necessary to keep up with the ever-changing rivalries and alliances between various leaders, while also dealing with the threats from England, Norway and Denmark and trying to do what is best for his people of Orkney, Caithness, Moray and the rest of Alba. As with Lymond and Nicholas we are rarely given the privilege of getting inside Thorfinn’s head; instead we see him mostly from the perspective of the people around him, which can be either insightful or misleading depending on how well these viewpoint characters understand him.

Groa is a great character too and is now one of my favourite female characters in all of Dunnett’s novels. The story of how she and Thorfinn come to love and understand each other is beautifully written and it was wonderful to watch their relationship develop over the course of the novel. Apart from the relationship between Thorfinn and Groa, the other one I found particularly fascinating and complex was the relationship between Thorfinn and his nephew, Rognvald. The encounters between the two of them throughout the first half of the book provided what, for me, were some of the most dramatic and exciting scenes in the book.

Thorfinn does have a lot of ambition, but unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s not because he’s looking for personal glory or has been encouraged by his ruthless Lady; his ambition is to improve life in his lands and give his people a strong ruler, uniting the disparate, diverse tribes of Orkney and Alba under a common religion and common laws. On the subject of religion, I did get very confused somewhere in Part 3, where Thorfinn visits Pope Leo in Rome. Actually, a lot of the religious aspects of the story in general confused me and that’s something I would attempt to understand better on a re-read. I tried not to worry too much about the things I couldn’t understand on this first read and instead concentrated on getting to know Thorfinn, Groa and the other characters, and enjoying the beautiful writing. The descriptions of the landscapes of Orkney and Alba are so vivid and evocative. This is one that I particularly loved:

They entered Loch Bracadale with the sunrise, rose-coloured oars laying darkling folds on the rose-tinted pool of the fjord. A dusting of guillemots, asleep on the water, roused and dived with almost no sound, leaving pink and verdigris rings on the surface. A charcoal rock needled with cormorants became suddenly bare, and from the shore came the scalloped cry of an oyster-catcher, joined after a moment by others. Then the longships slid past, and the sounds died away.

Although the Lymond Chronicles are still my favourites, I can definitely see why some people would consider this Dorothy Dunnett’s best book. It’s amazingly detailed and well-researched, as well as being a very powerful and emotional story. The only problem with reading a book like this is that when you know there can only be one outcome to the story and that there’s no chance of a happy ending, it makes the build-up to the conclusion difficult to read. The end of Thorfinn’s story was inevitable but still heartbreakingly sad.

I’m sorry I don’t have any more of Dunnett’s historical novels to look forward to, but I will try her Johnson Johnson mystery series at some point – and like all of Dunnett’s books I’m sure re-reading King Hereafter in the future will also be a rewarding experience!