Destination: Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul in WWII
Julia Gregson specializes in chick-hist-lit. I invented that to mean historical novels featuring adventurous and strong-willed female characters in romantic situations in exotic locations. And she bases their adventures on true stories. In 2009, I reviewed her best seller, East of the Sun and so I was happy to take a look at her new Jasmine Nights . (Her website www.juliagregson.net was not loading properly when I drafted this. Perhaps you’ll have better luck.)
In a nutshell, the heroine Saba Tarcan, whose father is a strict old-fashioned man from Turkey, leaves her native Wales to follow her dream of singing. This being the 1940’s, with bombs falling on London, any stage career seems dicey, but she signs on with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) the British equivalent of American’s later U.S. O. They send her to Cairo.
North Africa has become the focus of the air battle and her motley crew of entertainers brave desert winds to entertain the flyboys in remote outposts. Saba falls in love with one of those flyboys and life gets complicated when she is conscripted to carry out some low-level spying for the British.
The love affair is complicated by her determination to be independent. When Dom, the pilot, learns that the 22-year-old left home without telling her parents where she was going….
An uncle-ish part of him rose up when she said this. He wanted to scold her, to warn her of clear and present dangers ahead. Of men in remote places who would want to seduce her, of bad beds and frightening transport and bomb and stinging insects.
But Dom understands that Saba has to experience all this herself and learn to deal with it. And she does.
Gregson explains in interviews that Jasmine Nights is based on real-life events. Entertainers in North Africa really were recruited as spies, including Freya Stark, the intrepid female traveler and writer. Stark pops up in a conversation about the hairdresser that Saba sees in Cairo.
Gregson not only draws the reader into the historical period, but her writing excels at establishing the emotional tone of situations, starting with interesting characters and proceeding with well-crafted dialogue. For instance, Saba’s father, a merchant ship sailor, disapproves of her performing in front of men in public. Although her mother wants to support Saba’s talent, she fears contradicting her husband. Gregson gets the tone of the family tensions just right.
When Saba first goes out for a drink with the pilot, their meeting perfectly portrays first-date jitters. The only character that seemed not quite right to me was the spy master. The author seemed almost trying too hard to make him a slippery character.
The action moves from Wales to London (briefly) and then to Ciro and the northern Egyptian desert. Saba also spends some time in Alexandria and even visits Istanbul. Gregson describes each of these exotic locales enticingly. Since most WWII novels are set in London or in romantic villages in France, this gives us a whole new view of the war in more remote areas. Even though it is war time, the poor people keep on selling, begging, and surviving and the rich go on partying.
When the girls in the entertainment troupe are invited to a rich man’s party, Saba is awestruck.
In front of her, Saba saw were the three ancient pyramids of Giza, jutting out into a night sky that glittered with a thousand million stars. She was stunned by their beauty–in her mind pyramids belonged with unicorns and mermaids in some other mystical world; they were not the backdrops for a party.
Music is so important to this novel that at times I could imagine it had a sound track. Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn singing Deep Purple, I’m in
The Mood for Love, My Funny Valentine, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, would be appropriate. We learn what it is like to rehearse, how it feels to mesmerize a crowd.
They slipped into the music and when the pianist gave her a wink she joined them, nervous at first because of the strangeness of all this and then forgetting because in the end a song was a song and beyond things. She blotted them all out and closed her eyes and sang into the jasmine-scented night. Happiness flowed like golden honey through her veins. This was what she loved; what she was good at.
While the action builds to and through a crisis for the heroine, the romance winds up pretty much the way you figured it would despite the unlikelihood of….well, that would be a spoiler and I just won’t do that.
Because of the way Gregson develops a sense of place about the various locales and because the effect of World War II on these cities is a new way of looking at their history (or at least it was for me), I think that Jasmine Nights makes a good book for the traveler’s library. It also makes a good book to pack (or put on your Kindle ) for a trip. Not terribly demanding, engaging characters and a nice escape into a very different time and place.
Have you seen the Canadian TV series now in the U.S. on REELZ? Bomb Girls shows Canadian girls working in a bomb factory in the United States about the same time period, and reflects many of the same emotions we see in Gregson’s book.
Disclaimers: The publisher provided a copy of this book for review, but my opinions remain my own. The links to Amazon are a convenient way for you to do your Amazon shopping, but you need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so A Traveler’s Library benefits, each time you buy this way. Doesn’t cost you any more, so why not?
All photos came from Flickr and are used by Creative Commons license. Please click on each photo to learn more about the picture and the generous photographer.