Reviewed by Emma Crowley
From the deserts of North Africa, to the waters of Scotland, the Second World War touches the lives of two women from two very different worlds.
In Alexandria, Fran finds her world turned upside down as Rommel’s forces advance on the idyllic shores of Egypt. The life of luxury and stability that she is used to is taken away as she finds herself having to deal with loss, heartache and political uncertainty.
Meanwhile, in the Firth of Clyde, Catriona struggles between her quiet rural life and her dreams of nursing injured servicemen on the front lines. As the war rages on, the two women’s lives become intertwined – bringing love and friendship to both.
Many thanks to Alisa Floyd from Allison and Busby for my copy of Tapestry of War to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie is set during World War Two and moves back and forth between Alexandria in Egypt and the island of Islay in Scotland. It is a dual storyline full of love, courage and hope, ideal for fans of Victoria Hislop or Patricia Wilson. The story follows two women's very differing experiences of the war but they become connected through one man. Jane MacKenzie is a new author for me, in fact I had never heard of her before, even though this is her fourth novel. Honestly, it was the blurb that made me say yes to reading this book. It sounded just like the kind of read I enjoy and it certainly lived up to the majority of my expectations. It is a powerful story, extremely well written with clearly lots of research undertaken into both the settings and various events of the war which occurred at the time. The author instantly transported me to the city of Alexandria from the opening page. You know you are in for a good read if within the first few pages you can visualise yourself alongside the characters in the setting.
We meet Frances (Fran) Trevillian early one morning as she is strolling along the beach. She sees a body lying prone on the sand and soon discovers it is a man from the French Navy. Jim MacNeill who works in the Royal Navy as a radar and communication specialist is out running and sees the scene and comes to help. The man is not dead but seriously injured from a brawl the previous evening. Little does Fran know this chance meeting with Jim will change the course of her war experiences and her life forever. I did think all the historical aspects regarding the war and manoeuvres were covered in good detail throughout the book but admittedly I didn't understand about the Free French and the Navy French. I know this really only played a very very minor part in the story, and it didn't detract or deflect from the overall plot in any way, but as I love history I was keen to understand all aspects of what I was reading. I suppose I should have gone and done some research of my own to further my understanding but I was too caught up in the story and to be honest didn't want too spend much time away from what was going on so eager was I to see how things would develop.
Fran was a remarkable character and thankfully not one of those women you read about so often in books set during the war who stayed at home. Yes they may have done their bit but I felt Fran was out there in the thick of things. OK maybe not on the battle lines but more so through her voice as a writer and assistant editor at the Alexandria Times. It was brilliant to see a women doing a different job for once and boy was Fran passionate about all aspects of it. She wanted to get the story of the war out there and not sugar coat what was happening. That people may not always think everything is raging on far away out in the desert but in fact that Rommel and his forces could at any time draw nearer and nearer. The author highlighted what a cosmopolitan city Alexandria was. It was a melting pot of nationalities and customs and its vibrancy came alive on the pages. Fran enjoys what the city has to offer at night but the one thing she feels is missing from her life is having a large group of friends. It's a gap in her life that is becoming frustration. Yes she is dedicated to her job and pours her heart and soul into all aspects of it but still friendship, or even romance, would be more than welcome especially so in such times of uncertainty.
At a cocktail party thrown by neighbours Fran again meets Jim MacNeill. This showed how the privileged elite mostly British were defiant and determined to continue on as normal despite the regular threat of air raids. A spark is ignited between the two and what follows over the course of Fran's story in the book is the ups, downs, worries and fears that exist between the pair as romance attempts to blossom. I deeply felt the connection between the pair and that they were a very good match. Fran's inquisitive, observing and curious nature and personality was a good balance to a more serious side of Jim who had been a teacher back in Scotland. I felt the acute sense of pain and anxiety when Jim is offshore with the navy and as times grow ever more perilous and disaster besets all the characters that I had come to deeply care about I just wished that even though the Germans were throwing everything they could at the various strategic points in North Africa that maybe some sort of happiness could appear for Fran, her family and Jim. Even though though that path is far from smooth.
I felt once the basis of the novel was established that it did slow down in pace a little. It wasn't as action packed as I would have thought it could have been. Instead it became more character driven and quite descriptive in the day to day routines as the days passed and war raged on. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the book or it became boring but to make it that five star read for me I would have loved a few twists or one big jaw dropping moment to have been present. Just to up the ante a bit and leave me thinking this was a sublime read. Yes it was excellent but it just lacked that little something for me to boost it to another level comparable to that of Lucinda Riley or Victoria Hislop.
In contrast to the experiences of Fran and Jim are those of Catriona, sister of Jim, who has just completed her nursing training in Glasgow with a speciality and keen interest in physical therapy. She returns to the island of Islay where her father has lived since he was born. He works in one of the islands distilleries but this has been shut down for the duration of the war. With very little fishing around Fergus is a man who is lost, he feels on his own as his wife died some years ago. He has the constant worry of Jim away helping with the war effort and everything around him is changing whilst he is not ready to do so. If Fran is vibrant, independent and courageous, Catriona is the opposite. More so because of her circumstances rather than through her own willingness to step outside the mould of a small island community ruled by tradition. I could see her independent streak there beneath her surface and she knew where she wished her career to go but loyalty to her father was holding her back. As circumstances change and Fergus and Catriona move from the island to live with an Aunt that's when we see things going in a different direction for Catriona. Her war experiences are very different from what Fran witnesses far away on another continent but still Jim becomes the object that connects them together.
Similar to Fran's story I felt Catriona's needed that little bit of extra spice to it. Of course it was interesting to read of her physical therapy work with wounded soldiers brought back from the front and how she coped with seeing such horrors and life lasting wounds but similar to Fran's storyline I wanted a major twist that didn't really materialise. Of the two dual timelines I thought Fran's was far stronger and interesting and the reason for this being partly because it was set on foreign soil. Catriona does experience her ups and downs particularly on the romance front. The character of Duncan McIlroy was one whom I thought was very selfish and self absorbed and one Catriona should have stayed well away from. The author did highlight how the war reached every corner of the world and that no one how big or small was left unaffected, everyone had a role to play and it was up to them how they managed said role.
Tapestry of War was an excellent read which made me feel as if I had travelled back in time to a period so vastly different from the one in which we live today. Bar the one or two suggestions/things I felt the book needed, this really was a book typical of the historical fiction genre which had so many traits that I love and enjoy and always seek out when reading in this genre. It was honest, intense, evocative and I was transported to the heart of a time when panic, uncertainty and fear for the future were ever prevalent. I was delighted to have discovered the writing of Jane McKenzie. There is nothing like the buzz of finding a new author in your favourite genre and what's more that buzz increases if you find yourself enjoying the book. I'm keen to go back and read her previous three books to see how they compare with Tapestry of War and will certainly look out for more books from her in the future.