Source- acquired free of charge through Librarything in exchange for a review.
Touchstone Publishers (Simon & Schuster Inc)
Publication date: 2012
Paperback copy- 416 pages
Enjoyable, but not particularly exciting- 3.5 stars
The third novel from award-winning author Julia Gregson is a billed as a `powerful love story’ and moves from the back streets of Cardiff Bay to exotic Africa and then to dangerous, unstable Cairo during World War II. We meet twenty-three-year-old Saba Tarcan, a singer who encounters fighter pilot Dom Benson in a burns hospital whilst she is entertaining the troops. A connection is established between the pair, but all too soon Saba is employed to entertain troops overseas and then Dom himself is called on his own mission to the Middle East. Amidst the instability and peril of war, Saba is recruited for a secret task of her own that could jeopardise not only their fledgling relationship, but also her life…
As a newcomer to Gregson’s books, I genuinely didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, though I thought it was a safe bet that I would be in for an escapist, entertaining story at least. The beautiful cover promises a lot in that respect. I do have to say that if you are looking for a historical novel that really conveys a sense of place, then this is also the book for you. The smells, tastes and sounds of Cairo were so vividly drawn that I could envisage this bustling city during the 1940’s and imagine myself ducking in and out of the bazaars and sipping coffees in the backstreet cafes. However I do believe this admittedly terrific scene-setting was unfortunately detrimental to the rest of the plot. A sense of place is one thing, but when as a reader you find description is the most appealing part of the story then you know something is missing.
Initially I must confess that I found myself engrossed in this novel, intrigued by both Saba and Dom’s stories and the journey’s that they would make, which I was eager to read about. The secondary characters they encountered were well-drawn and the plot was pacey enough to hold my attention- then all of a sudden it just went off the boil. The narrative became flat and I found myself uninterested in all of the glamorous parties that Saba entertained at, which felt very repetitive. I wanted to know more about the impact of war on the cities and their inhabitants and less about the glitz and socialites encountered along the way. I don’t like to use this word too much, but generally, this book just became bland.
I did appreciate the transition of Saba as a character through this book however. When the novel begins she is portrayed as being a bit naïve and overly cowed by her domineering parents, but once she is overseas she becomes much stronger and courageous in her actions as she revels in her natural talents and finally uses them to her best advantage. She was an appealing protagonist, though I did find myself wishing to know a bit more about her upbringing than was actually divulged. That felt like something of a missed opportunity, particularly given her mixed heritage and the era in which she was raised.
Whilst I liked Dom well enough, I felt in comparison to Saba, he was somewhat one-dimensional. Also for me, the romance element between them never really ricocheted past anything other than `sweet’ throughout the entire book. I expected that given the sultry heat and exotic backdrop of Cairo, not to mention the frantic sense of time slipping away from them during the war itself the romance would have cranked up a notch to at least `spicy’ but it just never happened. The chemistry never sizzled and was a bit slow-paced for my tastes.
I feel this is a worthy 3.5 star read. Whilst I enjoyed it enough and it kept me turning the pages, there were some particularly weak elements that jumped out at me throughout and the rushed ending left me generally unsatisfied. Maybe my expectations were just too high when it came to this novel as the summary and gorgeous cover promised so much, but there just wasn’t as much fast-paced action, espionage and romance as I had anticipated.