Book Review: The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

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The Rose of Sebastopol was first published in 2007. It has now been reissued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, and the World Health Organisation’s global Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The “Rose” of the title is Rosa, who is spirited and strong-willed, and chafes against her conventional Victorian upbringing. Her only ambition is to be a nurse (or even a doctor), an ambition that eventually plunges her into the midst of the Crimean War. Her story is told from the point of view of Mariella, Rosa’s cousin and best friend. Quiet and submissive, Mariella’s main concerns are her needlework and her love for Henry Thewell, an eminent physician. Yet she finds herself on an extraordinary journey, travelling to Italy and then on to the Crimea.

Although it couldn’t have been predicted, the reissue of this novel is timely. Its themes of medicine, contagious disease and the control of medicine speak to us as we battle with a global pandemic. Florence Nightingale is only seen at a remove, but her work in trying to ensure hygiene and discipline in the military hospitals is central to the story. At the same time, we see conditions in London hospitals, and attempts to keep cholera at bay. In a statement that now seems prescient, Mariella tells us that “nobody in their right mind would encourage frail old ladies to move in together during a season of cholera”.

War is another theme. I knew little about the Crimean War before I read this novel and it was interesting to see the action from close up, observed by those who were not themselves fighting. And to watch the changing reactions of those at home in England, moving from unwavering support to doubt and confusion.

But it is not all war and medicine. There is a strong storyline, centred around the relationship between Rosa and Mariella, and the men who complicate their lives. This is really the story of Mariella’s personal journey, and of the part that Rosa plays in that journey. In response to reader feedback, the author has added an extra chapter to the end of the book, as well as a short introduction. Personally, I would have been happy without the extra chapter, but others may disagree. Either way, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Rose of Sebastopol, Katharine McMahon, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2020 (revised edition), 9781474616843

Book Review: The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

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The Women at Hitler’s Table is based on the extraordinary true story of Margot Wölk. She was one of fifteen women in the Prussian town of Patsch who were employed to taste the food prepared for Adolf Hitler while he was at his nearby headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair. This was to ensure the food had not been poisoned: if the women survived for an hour after eating, the food was fit to serve to Hitler.

The Woman at Hitler's Table book cover

In Rosella Postorino’s novel the central character is Rosa, one of ten food tasters. She is a glamorous Berliner who has come to stay at the farm belonging to her parents-in-law while her husband is away fighting. One strand of the story is that of the food tasters themselves, reluctant conscripts whose fear of poisoning becomes normalised, and who form shifting alliances with one another. Another strand is a clandestine, rather uncomfortable, love affair.  The story shows Rosa’s confusion and conflicting emotions. She is ill at ease in a country farmhouse, and worried about her husband. She struggles to fit in with the other food testers, but enjoys a brief friendship with Maria, a local aristocrat.

Of course, the person at the centre of events is Hitler himself, but we only ever see him at a remove. He is described as a sensitive man, who listens to opera and obsesses about his own health. He will not eat meat, because “he can’t stand the cruelty of the slaughterhouses”.

We get an insight into how ordinary Germans viewed the Nazis. They range from Rosa’s father, whose prospects were ruined by his refusal to join the party, to a group of women she calls “The Fanatics” on account of their blind devotion to Hitler. Others are indifferent, doing whatever is needed in order to survive. And the callous disregard with which the officers treat the food tasters is a reminder that many Germans lived in fear of their own leaders.

The novel raises some big questions. Can God exist, and can it be right to bring children into such a troubled world? The questions are reinforced by religious imagery. For instance, Rosa says “I would participate in the liturgy of the lunch room… an army of worshippers prepared to receive on our tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us”.

Rosa’s narrative is mostly objective, showing her resignation to whatever fate throws at her. But the occasional jumbled sequence, recalling her childhood nightmares, emphasises the abnormality of her situation. Although I found the ending slightly rushed and unsatisfactory, it is perhaps an indication of how her wartime experience would continue to haunt Rosa for the rest of her life.

This is the first of Rosella Postorino’s novels to be translated into English from the original Italian. I suspect that we will be hearing more of her.

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino, translated by Leah Janeczko. Harper Collins, 2019, hardback, £12.99, 9780008377274