Islands of Mercy
by Rose Tremain
(Chatto and Windus, $37)
Reviewed by Penny Hartill
Fans of Rose Tremain will rejoice that she is in virtuoso form with Islands of Mercy, a jam-packed historic romp set in the 19th century between tidy, middle-class Bath and the heated climes of the British colony of Borneo.
Tremain's ability to write dense prose with a light, almost comical touch draws us into the narrative from the get-go. Her writing has a musical cadence, inviting us to enjoy not only its storylines but its runs and pauses, making Islands of Mercy a pleasure to read.
Our central protagonist is Jane Adeane, the 6ft 2 "Angel of Bath", who graduates from healing the ill and infirm under the watchful eye of her doting medical doctor father, to pursuits of the adult kind when she goes to London to sojourn with her artistic Aunt Emmeline.
The novel ventures into titillating territory reminiscent of Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet at times, reminding us that while the setting may be corseted at the height of the male-dominated British Empire, novels can reinvent history. Women, in Islands of Mercy, are very much in the driving seat – as are the indigenous people of Borneo.
Eccentric Sir Ralph may think he controls much of the Southeast Asian Island - after all, he built an imposing white villa in the Bornean jungle and brought "civilisation" to its people. But – cue one of the book's many metaphors - the road he built is poorly conceived and it washes away with every monsoon. His lover, Leon - a local - is the real hero: wily and strategic, he has the lovestruck elderly gentleman fairly well wrapped around his youthful finger. Tremain takes us right to the brink of thinking we're about to read a cautionary tale of colonial massacre but instead the tables turn – Leon secures the upper hand and Sir Ralph is confirmed as nothing more than a likeable buffoon.
The book's cast of characters are interconnected. The dislikeable Valentine Ross, whose offer of marriage Jane spurns, eventually sets sail for Borneo in an ill-fated journey to rescue his malaria-ridden naturalist brother Edward, highlighting another metaphor akin to "be careful what you wish for".
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While the lightness of touch brings a genteel quality to the prose – very much in keeping with the period the book is set – the novel does, at times, come perilously close to cliched and trite storylines. The tying and untying of some of the relationships are too neat, the financial conundrums developed as storylines too easily resolved.
Tremain has shown she can twist gender and sex mores in the work, so why not take us further with memory-making plot-twists? Her ambition to demonstrate "the desperate and unending search for places of consolation and solace" isn't quite realised in the book. She does, however, succeed in highlighting the characters' anguish as they struggle to live in ways that 19th century society deemed unacceptable.
Tremain's terrific prosaic skill conveys pictures you can see, taste and feel.