Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A grand and dangerous adventure: Gill Paul's No Place for a Lady

The front lines of battle may seem to be no place for a lady, but it’s where two estranged sisters find new levels of maturity, see their strength tested to its limits, and develop new understandings of themselves and those they love.

Gill Paul's latest novel takes place during the Crimean War, a conflict in which Britain, France, Sardinia, and Ottoman Turkey united to fight Russia over the latter’s imperial expansions in the mid-19th century. It’s a complex set of circumstances, which may be why it doesn’t feature much in fiction, but she does a good job explaining the historical background.

In London in 1854, Dorothea Gray is distraught when her younger sister Lucy, an outgoing 17-year-old with little experience of the world, marries Charlie Harvington after a short courtship. Although Charlie is a captain with the 8th Hussars – part of the Light Brigade – Dorothea does some checking around and learns his parents have disowned him, calling him a “scoundrel of low morals."  Lucy, however, remains smitten with him.

Dorothea, at 31, is a talented volunteer nurse; bright and sensible, she’s clearly better cut out for a trek to the Crimean Peninsula than the sister she helped raise, their mother having died at Lucy's birth. However, it’s Lucy who heads there, with her new husband, just as war with the Russians is looming.

The narrative switches between the viewpoints of Dorothea, who hopes to join Florence Nightingale’s cadre of nurses in the Turkish lands and watch over Lucy there; and Lucy, who quickly learns that the conditions she’s forced to endure as an officer’s wife are hardly what she expects. Her naiveté is shown via the feather pillows and heirloom silk bedspread she brings along – they’re hopelessly impractical in the tents where she and Charlie set up camp.

Food supplies and warm uniforms are hard to come by during the harsh winter, which lowers morale and weakens the soldiers further. Lucy finds it hard to forgive Dorothea for trying to prevent her wedding but, with disease running rampant, needs her advice more than ever. Maybe it’s my age showing, but while I felt I was intended to see Dorothea as overbearing, as Lucy did, I admired her for being concerned about her sister's future.

This is a grand epic in the best sense: it has enormous sweep and scope but doesn’t neglect the smaller details of life during wartime or of travel through new, unfamiliar lands, from the mosques and minarets of Constantinople at sunset, the “black silhouettes against an orange sky,” to the Barracks Hospital in Scutari, with its terrible stench and primitive conditions.

The famous Miss Nightingale is on the scene, of course, extremely competent as she fearlessly takes charge, but her formidable presence and rigid rules mean she’s more beloved by her patients than her staff.

One minor distracting element involves an episode when Lucy disappears from view for a time.  When her perspective is delayed, to increase the suspense about where she is and whether the sisters will ever reunite, the novel's rhythm feels a bit disrupted. 

Regretfully, there aren’t many novels like this around anymore, and I might be tempted to call it old-fashioned for that reason, but the writing is brisk and fresh, and its enlightened multicultural perspective gives it contemporary resonance. There’s a good dose of romance, plenty of grit and realism, and unpredictable twists and turns – this isn’t the type of novel whose path is telegraphed from the beginning.  Many new characters pass through the sisters’ lives along their journeys, and both are altered by their experiences.

All in all, it’s an exciting story recommended to readers in search of adventure, and who are prepared to travel wherever the novel may lead.

No Place for a Lady will be published on July 2nd in paperback by Avon UK (400pp, £7.99) and is currently available as an ebook (£0.99 or $1.99).  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me a pdf file as part of the blog tour.


  1. Anonymous8:21 AM

    We need more epics done well like this, Sarah. I miss them. I'm curious how many words/pages this one is. With the recent conflicts in the Ukraine this novel has a timely setting, and might be a fun way to learn some of the history of the area. The author must've done considerable research to get all the camp details right - and Nightingale makes an appearance too? How fun!
    Your reviews are always so honest and even-handed as you parse out the details of what works and what doesn't - I like that.

    1. I totally agree! The novel's 400 pages long, so it's not a huge doorstopper, but it travels to so many interesting places. You're right, too, about the setting being timely.

      Many of the people that Lucy keeps company with as an officer's wife close to the front lines are based on historical characters, and the author made me feel like I was there along with her.

      Thanks very much, I'm happy you liked the review!