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Islands of Mercy Reviews

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

Islands of Mercy

Rose Tremain

3.57 out of 5

7 reviews

Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 10 Sep 2020
ISBN: 9781784743314

IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE BOLD NEW NOVEL FROM THE AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR OF THE GUSTAV SONATA She was 'The Angel of the Baths', the one woman whose touch everybody yearned for. Yet she would do more.

3 stars out of 5
Sara Collins
16 Oct 2020

"There are glimpses of Tremain at her best in a passionate tale of coloniser and colonised in the British empire"

This strong passion is one of the many forms of escape interrogated in the novel, which is all about how, where and with whom we seek sanctuary. As the action moves between Bath and Borneo, it gestures also towards the idea of empire as a form of refuge. Most of the Englishmen in this novel seek sanctuary in ways that involve them violating the spaces of others, as exemplified in the menacing desperation of Ross’s addresses to Jane. Even though he deplores “the white man’s desire to discover ‘lost tribes’ in parts of the world nobody had yet mapped, being inclined to think that these people might be happy in their ‘lostness’ and living lives of quiet content”, he fails to recognise how this is mirrored by his own rapacious desire, and her recoiling ambivalence. Another male character, Sir Ralph Savage, is an example of exactly the sort of white man Ross denigrates, having left his homeland in search of a place where he can convince himself of his own exceptionalism. Savage acts as a local “rajah” in Borneo, a self-described “lover of young men who believes that he alone is the guarantor of his subjects’ happiness yet has achieved nothing toward that end other than overseeing construction of a road that goes no further than his own property”.


4 stars out of 5
25 Sep 2020

"A spirited cast of women strive to shape their lives beyond marriage in this story of self-discovery set in Borneo and Bath"

There is a pragmatic but emotionally hopeful marriage before the novel’s end. But for other women in the book, Tremain leaves futures and possibilities unresolved and open, cushioned in some places by the serendipity of money. Islands of Mercy is a thoughtfully told novel with the sparks of many other novels contained within it; it’s just frustrating that the best parts of each never quite fuse into a single satisfying story.

4 stars out of 5
Stephanie Merritt
21 Sep 2020

"Tremain has long been one of our most accomplished novelists, and here is further confirmation."

In a novel with a large cast it is perhaps inevitable that some characters engage more than others, and the Borneo episodes never quite come to life in the way that Jane’s story does. But in her portrayal of the ways in which individual longing and frustration unfold against the constraints of forces beyond our control, Tremain has long been one of our most accomplished novelists, and here is further confirmation.

4 stars out of 5

"a readable jigsaw of a tale"

The result is an enjoyable page-turner, but also a novel that resembles a jigsaw puzzle in the way it’s put together. The more closely you look at it, the more the joins start to show.

3 stars out of 5
Alex Peake-Tomkinson
12 Sep 2020

"Tremain’s latest historical novel is full of hectic sexuality as well as yearnings for solace"

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.

4 stars out of 5
6 Sep 2020

"a winningly old-fashioned novel about the struggles of dissatisfaction"

Though the jungly exoticism of the Borneo sections is, perhaps, not as captivating as the narrative set in England, there’s much to praise here. Tremain’s long sentences brim with a poised positivity; ironic italics add lightness to her fond depictions of these imperfect strivers, as they come to realise “this is how life is: we are overtaken by flashes of lightning and brilliant storms, and we can only submit”.

3 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
6 Sep 2020

"so emotionally sophisticated, so deft with shade and light, more absorbing than most fiction I’ve read this year"

Beneath the humour and bawdiness, Tremain’s views on human nature are often darker than her lively prose might suggest. At times the novel looks like it’s going to develop into a reworking of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which featured a jealous husband punishing his wife in a disease-ridden corner of Asia. Sadly, as Tremain moves between Victorian England and the Bornean jungle, the stories don’t retain their heat. Various familiar themes (medicine and botany; foolish colonialist ventures; sibling relationships; surrogate mothers) are interwoven, but none of the storylines matures in a way that feels substantial enough.