Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain review – a rich, world-straddling saga

Set between Bath and Borneo, this 14th novel skilfully explores familiar themes of desire, frustration and the quest for meaning

Over a distinguished literary career, Rose Tremain has traversed genres with her customary flair, though many readers will associate her primarily with the historical fiction of her most acclaimed novels. Islands of Mercy, her 14th, returns to the 19th century, and considers familiar Tremain themes: desire, purpose, the elusive rewards of art and the small acts whose consequences ripple outwards.

Her cast of interconnected characters watch these consequences play out against two contrasting backdrops: the neat and orderly city of Bath, where “reasons for dying were comparatively few”, and the jungles of Borneo, where even the white rajahs live in fear of headhunters. Independent-minded Jane Adeane, the 6ft 2in daughter of an affluent Bath doctor, spurns a marriage proposal from her father’s assistant, Valentine Ross, and flees to her bohemian aunt Emmeline, an artist living in Chelsea. Here Jane embarks on a journey of self-discovery with Julietta, the beautiful wife of one of Emmeline’s friends, and tries to imagine a life that could accommodate this newfound passion. Meanwhile, in Borneo, Valentine’s naturalist brother Edmund contracts malaria and is nursed back to health by Sir Ralph Savage, a well-meaning British landowner who was discharged from the army for homosexuality and now spends his time in half-hearted attempts to improve the lot of his Malay subjects. Minor characters orbit around these main players, and death hovers constantly at their shoulders: in Paris, Jane and Julietta visit the public morgue after a morning of transgressive sex; later, she shares an intimate moment with Valentine over the body of a patient she has helped him euthanise.

Tremain has said this is a novel about the quest to find meaning in a life, and metaphors abound; in Borneo, Sir Ralph sets out to build a road across his land, but it leads nowhere, and is washed away every time the rains come. One of the novel’s more Dickensian figures, the Irish émigré Mrs Morrissey, reminds Edmund that during the famine, the British government made the Irish ‘work on new roads that led to no destination’.

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.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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