Britain, 1854: the Crimean War captures the imagination of young men eager to do battle with the new enemy, Russia, but as winter closes in, the military hospitals fill with the sick and wounded. In defiance of Florence Nightingale, Rosa Barr - young, headstrong and beautiful - travels to the battlefields, determined to be useful. Her cousin, Mariella Lingwood, remains at home with the sewing and writes letters to her fiance, Henry, a doctor working within the shadow of the guns. But when Henry falls ill and Rosa's communications cease, Mariella finds herself drawn inexorably across the Black Sea, towards the war. Following the trail of the elusive and captivating Rosa, Mariella's journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian London to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea, and prompts a reckless affair with a cavalry officer whose complex past is bound up with her ordered world, but reveals a well of unexpected strength and passion that may help her to survive against the desolation of war.
Last year I read The Alchemist's Daughter by this author and quite liked it, so when I saw that she had a new book coming out I was pleased. What made me more pleased was that the novel was set in a period which I hadn't really read much about about (The Crimean War) and seemed, from the blurb at least, to feature one of the more iconic female historical figures (Florence Nightingale). I say seemed to because in actuality, Florence Nightingale was a shadowy figure very much on the edges of the storyline.
What the book was actually about was two young women, Mariella Lingwood and Rosa Barr. There are two separate threads of storyline within the novel. One focuses on the relationship between the cousins from their initial meeting, to a summer vacation that goes terribly wrong, and how it is that Rosa came to be living with Mariella and her family. In some ways, some of this background seemed a little superfluous, although I guess that it was supposed to show us that Rosa had always been rebellious and headstrong.
The other thread of the storyline is initially a trip for Mariella to locate and care for her fiance, Henry Thewell, who is a doctor serving in the Crimea. He has however been invalided back to Italy, and Mariella and her companion are shocked to find him in a terrible condition. It transpires that he has crossed paths with Rosa whilst in the Crimea because she has gone off to become a nurse. After Mariella somewhat shockingly comes to realise that Henry is not exactly the man that she thought he was, she makes her way to the Crimea to try and search for Rosa because there has been no correspondence from her from some time. Rosa has left her supervised post, and appears to have made her own way to work more closely with the injured soldiers and it seems as though something very terrible may have happened to her.
The girls (or I should say young ladies) seem to have a somewhat obsessive preoccupation with each other. They are very different creatures, and yet love each other deeply - the main word that I could come up with to describe their relationship was besotted. Mariella is a the very model of a middle-class young lady. Her time is taken up with family, sewing and charitable causes, whereas Rosa is brash and impulsive, involved with people and causes that are not acceptable in polite society. Even Rosa's decision to go off and nurse is not quite above board. She initially was rejected by Miss Nightingale as a nurse, and so filled with determination that she would go, even if it is on her own, she has to find another way to get taken to the Crimea.
Where this novel is good is in the descriptions of the siege conditions and battles. The author does not sugar coat the horrors that accompanied warfare in the 1850s, let alone sanitise the suffering that was caused by cholera and Crimean fever that was rampant amongst the nurses and troops who had the misfortune to be posted to the siege at Sebastopol. She also did a great job at describing the indignation of the British people when they learnt that their young man were being sent to a place where there wasn't enough medical equipment to cover the most basic of war injuries, despite the promises made otherwise before the conflict began.
What didn't work so well for me was the never ending search for Rosa to try and determine what exactly happened for her. It seemed as though that part of the novel just dragged and dragged. Could she be here, maybe she's there. In the end, it was resolved but not until the last couple of pages of the novel.
Along the way, Mariella, who really is the main protagonist, learns a lot about herself, under going a physical and emotional journey that will leave her changed for the rest of her life.
This was a somewhat uneven attempt to portray a time that is not really all that commonly covered in historical fiction and yet is quite a fascinating time. This is one occasion where the two different time frames being told alternately within the narrative really didn't work all that well.
It is something of a surprise to me that such a romanticised figure like Florence Nightingale hasn't been given the HF treatment that I know of, or at least not all that recently.