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Gay abandon: Islands of Mercy, by Rose Tremain, reviewed

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

Islands of Mercy Rose Tremain

Chatto, pp.368, 18.99

Rose Tremain has followed her masterly The Gustav Sonata with an altogether different novel. In 1865, Clorinda Morrissey, a 38-year-old woman from Dublin, arrives in Bath and sells a ruby necklace in order to set up Mrs Morrissey’s High Class Tea Rooms. Mrs Morrissey believes that ‘the future was going to be perfumed with raspberry jam and freshly baked scones and fragrant lemon cake’.

The tea rooms also, however, once open, become the scene of Jane Adeane — a highly skilled nurse — rejecting a proposal from Dr Valentine Ross, her colleague at her father’s surgery. Jane has achieved a near-mythic status as a nurse in Bath and ‘was described as “The Angel”, or sometimes as “The Tall Angel” or “The White Angel’ or, more frequently, as ‘The Angel of the Baths”’. Jane flees to London after Dr Ross’s proposal to stay with her unconventional aunt — an unmarried painter called Emmeline Adeane and is soon seduced by a married Italian beauty, Julietta Sims.

While Jane is in London, Valentine Ross and Sir William Adeane, Jane’s father, employ Clorinda Morrissey to make them pies after their cook leaves. At this time Ross also thinks of his younger brother, Edmund, a naturalist suffering from malaria in Malaysia. Edmund Ross’s most recent letter to his brother relates that he is recovering in the home of Sir Ralph Savage, ‘self-styled Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. As he sleeps, Edmund Ross, we are told, ‘reminded Sir Ralph of nobody so much as Jesus Christ himself, and this strange likeness brought into the rajah’s heart complicated feelings of wonder and yearning’.

Sir Ralph’s favourite Malay servant, Leon, is his primary bed companion at this stage and the rajah reflects on the ‘physical fights they sometimes indulged in, both of them growling with anger and mortification and conflicted desire’. The aggression in the sex between Sir Ralph and Leon is in contrast to the gentler but no less exciting sexual awakening Jane experiences with Julietta Sims. Jane is not Julietta’s only lover, however — there is a select band of women she calls the ‘beauties’, as well a pretty teenage housemaid who blushes fetchingly beneath her white cap when Sims asks her to confirm in front of Jane that they sometimes visit each other at night. Sims has already told Jane: ‘We masturbate each other and I leave. It is very innocent. We barely speak — only the unspoken whisperings of women and their needs. But I believe she loves me.’

All this hectic sexuality nonetheless fails to ignite the plot, which, at times, becomes frustratingly protracted. Tremain has said that she chose two contrasting locations for this book, ‘the genteel city of Bath and the harsh island of Borneo’, but wanted to show that in both settings her characters are involved in ‘the desperate and unending search for places of consolation and solace’. It is a shame, however, that all this searching is never entirely easy to take seriously or to wholly engage with.

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