About the Book
Orkney, 1940. On a remote island, a prisoner-of-war camp is constructed to house five hundred Italian soldiers. Upon arrival, a freezing Orkney winter and divided community greets them.
Orphaned sisters Dorothy and Constance volunteer to nurse the men. Dot is immediately drawn to Cesare, a young man fighting on the wrong side and broken by war and destruction.
The soldiers spend their days building a secret barricade between the islands. By night, however, they construct a reminder of their native land – an exquisite chapel.
As tensions between the islanders and outsiders grow, the sisters’ loyalty is tested. Will Dot choose love, or family?
Format: Hardcover (400 pages) Publisher: Michael Joseph
Publication date: 29th April 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction, WW2
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I loved Caroline Lea’s first book, The Glass Woman, so I was delighted when I learned she had a new novel on the way. Set in the Orkney islands during World War 2, The Metal Heart is inspired by the true story of how Italian soldiers constructed a chapel on the island of Lamb Holm (Selkie Holm in the book) during the period it was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. You can find photographs of the chapel, the island and the surrounding landscape on Caroline’s Instagram feed.
Alongside the building of the chapel, the author has created a wonderful story involving twin sisters, Dorothy (known as Dot) and Constance (known as Con). Although identical in appearance, as the reader learns from the sections written from each sister’s point of view, they possess a very different outlook on life. For Constance, haunted by an experience that has made her distrustful of others, the dilapidated bothy on Selkie Holm which has become the sisters’ home is a refuge, a place she can feel safe. So the arrival of hundreds of male prisoners along with the often brutal men who guard them, reawakens disturbing memories. These, and feelings of guilt about her role in the fate of their father and mother, makes Con determined to protect her sister from experiencing anything like the trauma she has undergone. In contrast, for Dorothy, bolder in spirit than her sister, the arrival of the prisoners to the island opens up the possibility of a different future.
The arrival of the prisoners is initially greeted with suspicion by the Orcadians, the inhabitants of the Orkney islands. Fiercely independent, for them ‘mainland’ does not refer to Scotland but to the largest island in the group and the location of the centre of the community, Kirkwall. Their reservations partly ease when some of the prisoners are deployed as much-needed labour on local farms. The rest of the prisoners remain employed on Selkie Holm quarrying rocks in order to build barriers that will prevent German U-boats attacking the British fleet anchored in Scapa Flow. In one of the many interesting contradictions the book explores, the barriers eventually form causeways, making access between some of the islands easier than before for the local people.
I loved the way the author exposed the natural beauty of what could be viewed as a harsh, even bleak environment in some wonderful descriptive writing. ‘The sky is clear, star-stamped and silvered by the waxing gibbous moon.’ The signs of earlier inhabitants of the island – barrows and caves – combined with the myths associated with the island create a wonderful atmosphere. (While reading The Metal Heart, I was reminded of Amy Liptrot’s book The Outrun also set on Orkney and was delighted to see it mentioned in the author’s bibliography.)
The sections of the book describing the construction of the Catholic chapel are absolutely fascinating, with the prisoners making ingenious use of everyday objects and materials reclaimed from the damaged hulks of ships that surround the island. For the prisoners, and Cesare in particular, the building of the chapel is both a connection with home and a way of distracting themselves from the daily hardships of life in the camp: the gruelling, dangerous work; the brutality of the guards; the cold; the sickness that sweeps through the prisoners. ‘He is, for a moment, no longer a prisoner. His muscles do not ache, his stomach does not gripe. He is a free man, standing in a church in his own country. War and death are things that happen to other people, in other places. The chapel will be a place of peace.’
The chapel may be a place of peace but there is danger on other fronts, forcing each sister to make a heartbreaking choice and risk everything to do what they believe is right. A fascinating blend of fact and fiction, The Metal Heart is a touching love story and a message of hope that beauty can emerge from unexpected places, even in time of war.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley.
In three words: Emotional, atmospheric, haunting
About the Author
Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey and gained a First in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick University, where she now teaches writing. Her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and The Glass Woman was shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown. (Photo credit: Twitter profile)