Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon

GENRE: historical novel

In 1854, beautiful, adventurous Rosa Barr travels to the Crimean battlefield with Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps. For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the letters she receives from her fiancé, Henry, a celebrated surgeon who also has volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. When Henry falls ill, Mariella impulsively follows the trail of her elusive cousin and decides to brave the front lines to find her. Her epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian London to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea and the tragic city of Sebastopol. There she encounters a reckless cavalry officer whose complex past – and future – are inextricably bound up with her own. As Mariella’s quest leads her deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, her ordered world begins to crumble and she finds she has much to learn about secrecy, faithfulness, and love.


This is a truly beautiful historical novel, very detailed and just a generally delightful read.

At the centre of the story are two women: Mariella Lingwood, the narrator, and Rosa Barr, her cousin. Mariella is a typical Victorian lady, delicate, sensitive and dedicated to her domestic activities. Rosa is full of spirit and fire, talking to the scandalous pre-Raphaelites, quite the opposite of Mariella, but these two girls are best friends and they are bound together by love and friendship they feel for each other. They are really dedicated to each other. I loved their friendship. The story begins when Rosa travels to the Crimea to be one of Florence Nightingale’s nurses. At one point, her letters stop arriving and it is the unadventurous Mariella of all people who finds herself on a boat sailing to Sebastopol, to find her lost cousin Rosa.

The story is multi-layered. It skips from the present to two eras of the past: Mariella’s and Rosa’s early childhood, and to one year before the start of the war and Rosa’s disappearance. The author handles all three periods very well and the reader never becomes confused. These three periods reveal the truth about Rosa and Mariella gradually, but foremost about Rosa. Rosa is like a phantom, not seen much, but always present in Mariella’s thoughts. Rosa’s disappearance is not the only problem. There is Henry Thewell, Mariella’s fiancé, who is recovering from the Crimean fever in Italy and whose words, spoken in a delirium, shake Mariella’s world and actually prompt her to travel to the Crimea and find Rosa, as well as to discover the truth.

I don’t want to spoil this beautiful story too much. I can say, though, that the author did some extensive research. The period details are wonderful. Victorian England is presented wonderfully and I really loved that Mariella is portrayed as a typical young woman of the era. She is not a woman ahead of her time, but of her time, which is very nice for a change, with all the brave and very modern heroines swarming the world of historical fiction. Mariella’s growth from naivety and innocence to experience is wonderfully done. She starts off as a shy Victorian lady, prone to nervous headaches, yet she overcomes her fears for the sake of love and truth: she must find Rosa and she must know the truth. Things are not easy for her and her Victorian delicacy hinders her at first, but she grows stronger and becomes a stronger woman. She becomes useful at the Crimea and she even finds happiness.

The Crimean war is also described in detail, which I loved. The author tackled the battles, the consequences of war, the hard life in Crimea during the war, and the notion that this war had no real purpose. She also described the nursing, the diseases, the wounds, sometimes in fine details. I did not mind that, descriptions of certain illnesses and wounds did not bother me in the slightest. That was part of the war, that was reality, and I’m glad the author did not spare the reader in this sense.

All 412 pages of this novel were a delight to read, but I was disappointed by the ending. It was too abrupt and it lacks an explanation. The main point of the novel is settled, but I would like to know what happened to Mariella and others after the end of the book. Rosa’s fate was made clear, but not Mariella’s and I really don’t like that. The ending is too indefinite. But luckily, the rest of the book is absolutely wonderful. I recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction.

: / (4.5 stars)


Blodeuedd said...

Oh the review :)
Lovely, and now I do wanna read it

Jan von Harz said...

Fantastic review, You definitely have me interested in this book just by your descriptions.

Bookalicious Ramblings said...

Wow, great review! I've been wanting to read this for AGES, but I just can't seem to be able to get around to it ... I really want to though! :D

The Readings of a Busy Mom said...

oh such a great review...... i love the sound of this and think it is a newbie to the wish list

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The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

What a lovely review! I'm so excited about this book now and I'm so glad to hear that it's really good historical fiction. I don't know much about the Crimean War and I was hoping this would talk about it so I'm glad to hear that it does. Also glad to hear that Mariella is actually a Victorian woman-while I don't mind reading modern heroines in historical fiction because I'm pretty used to it, I recognize that it's historically inaccurate. I can't wait to read this!