This review first appeared at www.bookpleasurs.com
Jasmine Nights, by Julia Gregson, is a historical romance set during World War Two, which immerses the reader in richly crafted details of the life of a traveling ensemble who perform for British troops in North Africa.
Saba Tarcan, a young talented singer, half-Turkish/half-Welsh, leaves her home in Tiger Bay, Wales, risking estrangement from her family, to join ENSA, the entertainment arm of the British Armed Services. Gregson’s fine portrayal of the working class neighborhood of Tiger Bay, and Saba’s close but combative family, creates an authentic atmosphere for Saba to both cherish and want to transcend, to be able to live her own life and develop her musical gifts.
She sings at a hospital for injured RAF pilots where Dom Benson, recovering from burns and suffering from survivor’s guilt, falls in love with her. The novel expands to the war itself, following both Saba and Dom as chance interferes with their relationship and intrigue and danger mounts.
The entertainment troop Saba joins is sent to Cairo, travels to remote military stations in the Sahara, until Saba is recruited as a spy, under the cover of being a protégée of a Turkish entrepreneur, a job she naïvely accepts. Saba travels to Alexandria, and then Turkey, where her ability to mesmerize audiences with her voice is used in a plot against the Nazis. Dom’s love of flying, the transcendence of his experience as a pilot, his commitment, bravery, and the guilt he still feels for the death of a friend, parallels Saba’s story. Gregson’s use of historic details, both small and large, such as the hair dye used by Arleta, Saba’s best friend, the descriptions of period clothing, cacophony and scents of the streets of 1942 Cairo and Alexandria, and the boredom and tension of war, create an engrossing world for the reader.
The arc of the love story is predictable, but Saba and Dom are complex characters who keep the reader caring for the outcome. To Gregson’s credit, Saba sees her career as a performer is as important as her relationship to Dom, and there is friction over this issue.
A fairly quick read, Jasmine Nights is perfect for vacations or weekends, transporting the reader to exotic locations and a dangerous time few people alive still remember.
Julia Gregson is the author of East of the Sun and Band of Angels and is the winner of the Le Prince Maurice Prize and the Romantic Author of the Year Award.