The Rose Of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

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The Rose Of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jacqueline Kay
Reviewed by Jacqueline Kay
Summary: Most likely to appeal to ladies, an absorbing tale of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the Crimean War.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0753823743

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Balaclava, Alma, Inkerman, Scutari, Sebastopol. It's strange how just the names of events and places from the Crimean War can still stir up emotions in the twenty-first century. They conjure up images on the one hand of the follies of so-called "glorious" warfare in the name of Empire, and on the other of the selfless dedication of pioneering nurses in adverse circumstances. Katherine McMahon's new book The Rose of Sebastopol takes us back to that time to view it all through the eyes of Mariella, a lady who at first is quite content to stay at home in England within the boundaries expected of her station in life; while her relatively reckless cousin, Rosa, can't wait to escape her lot by enlisting to assist Miss Nightingale on her mission in the Crimea.

The story is not told in strict chronological sequence, so it is necessary to pay close attention to the dates in the chapter headings to avoid getting muddled. Even in the opening chapter we glimpse enough of the future to understand that it is not going to end happily ever after. With her fiancé seriously ill and other members of her family missing, Mariella's plans for a comfortable future are in complete disarray as she embarks with her maid on a desperate quest to discover exactly what has happened to her cousin, a quest for which she is ill-prepared and which inevitably places her own life in danger.

Interspersed with her account of this quest are chapters concerning earlier events in her life which give real depth to her character as well as others with whom she grows up. McMahon plunges her readers, alongside her characters, into everyday life in Victorian England before exposing them to the harsh environment of the Crimean conflict. We are made to sense the cocooned atmosphere of the drawing rooms in London where the focus of the ladies' attention is on their embroidery and where the progress of the war is followed with great interest but little understanding; and we are taken on some much riskier adventures through the streets of London where a more Bohemian lifestyle can be found. We are carefully indoctrinated with the values and fashions of the time and introduced to the philanthropic preoccupations of Mariella's family.

Although her upbringing is in many ways quite sheltered, we are left in no doubt about the brutality of the age, and the primitive standards of health care available. There is a particularly vivid account of an amputation being carried out in a London hospital. Readers who progress beyond that point will have no difficulty stomaching the war scenes that follow later in the book.

All writers of historical fiction tread a difficult path in making sure their writing is consistent with known facts. Katharine McMahon skilfully directs her characters close to the action but just sufficiently out of the limelight not to influence events. I longed for Mariella to come face to face with Miss Nightingale, or to run into the arms of Mrs Seacole, although somehow I knew that neither would happen, and it was actually all the more plausible as a result.

Mariella's growing awareness of her sexuality and the many other adjustments she has to make from the standards of her restrained upbringing to survive amid the realities of adult wartime life are expertly handled. Her relationships with her maid and with various members of her family evolve with her growing independence and resilience. I was fully immersed in my reading and bitterly disappointed when it ended. My recommendation is to have some tissues handy - just in case.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy reading about women making the most of adverse circumstances you might also enjoy Searching for Tilly by Susan Tallis.

Booklists.jpg The Rose Of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2008.

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