An unusual and vivid historical novel tracks a feverish love triangle/mystery across the battlefields of the Crimean War.
Freshness and energy drive McMahon’s latest (The Alchemist’s Daughter, 2006, etc.), which offers a socially alert tableau of mid-19th-century England as the background to an emotional drama, launched when Mariella Lingwood learns that her fiancé, Dr. Henry Thewell, recently serving in the war against Russia, has fallen gravely ill. Mariella rushes to his side in Italy only to find him raving about her cousin Rosa, who had daringly joined the ranks of female nursing volunteers led by Florence Nightingale, tending the English soldiers fighting in Turkey as they suffered terribly from disease and fearful conditions. Rosa’s war-front letters to Mariella have been almost as passionate in their avowals of commitment as Henry’s, but has her cousin betrayed her after all? Mariella sets off for Constantinople to find Rosa and uncover the truth. McMahon depicts the battlefields as another shifting social panorama, this one shot with horror and corpses as well as issues of class and acceptable behavior. Here the story’s momentum moves less dynamically, but over time Mariella, an unheroic heroine, learns to be of service, first to her sick servant, later to wounded soldiers. Still searching for her cousin, she falls in love with dashing Captain Max Stukeley and comes intuitively to understand Rosa’s disappearance, while in the process awakening to a different sense of self.
Marked by its passion and social commentary, this is a pleasingly unformulaic read, although its twin time frames and ending may not satisfy all readers.