Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

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Reviewed by Harriet

Islands of Mercy is set in 1865, and, in a split narrative, covers events in England and Sarawak, in Borneo. Throughout most of the novel, the two parts seem only very slimly connected, though at the end the two come together in the death of one character.

I read that Rose Tremain described this novel as being about the quest to find meaning in a life.  Obviously this must apply to the central character, a young woman by the name of Jane Adeane. She is the daughter of a celebrated Bath physician; her mother has died some years earlier and she and her widowed father are very close. Under his training, she has taken up nursing, and is much admired, even venerated, for her work in the famous sulphur baths that gave the city its name: she is known as the White Angel of the baths, and is believed to have healing powers. At six foot two she is a striking figure, and has attracted the ‘sexual and monetary ambition’ of her father’s colleague, Dr Valentine Ross. But when Valentine invites her to tea at a popular local tearoom run by Irish Chlorinda Morrissey, and proposes marriage, Jane leaps to her feet and rushes out. She has always believed that ‘she and her magnificent inches would accomplish something the world might find extraordinary’. But what, in the mid-nineteenth century, could this be?

Jane’s first move is to leave Bath and seek refuge in Chelsea with her aunt Emmeline, a single woman who has made a successful career as an artist. Emmeline’s life has been extremely unconventional and not always happy – she spent many years as the mistress of another painter, who loved her but was unable to marry her, and her only child was stillborn – but she is full of life and hope, and a great inspiration to her niece. She introduces Jane to some of her Bohemian friends, among whom is the extraordinarily beautiful Julietta Sims. A married woman with a child, Julietta takes great delight in seducing the young society women of her acquaintance, all of whom idolise her and long for her special brand of lovemaking. Before long, Jane falls under her spell, and a whole new world of passion opens up for her: in Julietta’s bed, she experiences ‘a kind of near-drowning in some dark element into which she had never before fallen’. 

Jane’s chapters are interspersed with those of Sir Ralph Savage, an Englishman who has set up a grand estate in Borneo over which he rules as the self-styled ‘Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. He describes himself as a ‘lover of young men’, and has taken his handsome young servant Leon into his bed. Leon is ambitious for his own rise in life, and is clear-eyed and honest about the role of the white colonisers: ‘You come. Take our gold. Sail away’. He is also given to jealousy, and is enraged when a young English botanist, stricken with malaria and lost in the jungle, finds his way to the estate and is taken in by Sir Ralph, who nurses him back to health and enjoys hearing him reading the Bible aloud. This young man is none other than Edmund Ross, the brother of Valentine, and this slender link between the two seemingly disparate elements of the novel will come full circle at the end.

Though these two stories are central to the novel, there are other side shoots, one of which has Valentine exploring the Portsmouth Docks and discovering the horrors that would await him should he go to Borneo in search of his brother. The most notable sub plot is that of Chlorinda Morrissey, whose trajectory to Bath and her tea-room has involved selling a ruby necklace, a family heirloom. Drawn into Dr Adeane’s house following Jane’s departure to cook nourishing lunches for the two doctors, she ends up marrying Jane’s father and thus becoming her stepmother, a role which she looks set to fulfil with great understanding and success. Before this can happen she has to return to Dublin, and ends up rescuing a young niece from a grim childhood and placing her with a couple of fine strong women who live at the seaside.

Fine strong women abound in this novel, which certainly explodes the myth of repressed Victorian England. Tremain has never shied away from sex, but there may be more of it here than in any of her earlier novels. There’s certainly a lot of passion in the novel, but it’s not all plain sailing. Jane’s affair with Julietta brings her extraordinary joy, but also pain and confusion as she struggles to live the conventional life that’s expected of her, one that even Julietta urges her to accept. As for Sir Ralph and Leon, their relationship is depicted in all its complexities: Leon is understandably conflicted, longing to tell the Rajah that ‘he was tired of being subservient’, but also fighting with ‘a feeling he refused to name as love’.

There are no easy answers here, either to unconventional love stories or to the problems of colonialism. But it’s a fascinating exploration of lives that push at the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable, with varying degrees of success. Overall, though, the novel ends with hopeful outcomes for those that deserve them, and a fitting end for one character who certainly doesn’t.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (Chatto & Windus, 2020). 978-1784743314, 368pp., hardback.

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