The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea – a tale of Orkney in wartime, superstitions and the power of the sea

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

This is a novel full of the power of the sea, memory and love to transform lives. Set in Orkney in the early 1940s, it tells the story of twin girls, Constance and Dorothy, orphaned by the power of the sea, scarred by events and challenged by their need to live apart, away from the community of Kirkwall. It tells the story of Italian prisoners of war, brought to the island to build something that will prevent another attack, another tragedy. This is a book of historical fiction which slides the dates and events to suit the myth of a chapel that gave new hope to men brutalized by war, women with a shaky hold on reality. Intense and powerful, this is a terrific read of how people react to fear and the setting of islands surrounded by a sea that has such an impact of life. The characters – the girls, Con and Dot, the prisoners, the islanders, all deal with the superstitions and stories that are as old as time, and the interruption of war, with its stretched loyalties and discoveries of love.

The story of the girls, as they deal with their memories of lost parents, the suspicions of the local community and the physical problems of living on an otherwise uninhabited island come into conflict with the situations of the prisoners and those charged with their activities on the island is complex. The addition of a whole pageant of folklore and long held beliefs adds another layer, as does the treacherous weather of stillness and storm, fog and powerful waves. This is such a well written story that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special novel.

The book begins with a Prologue set in November 1942, as “We” deal with a body. In setting the scene, it admits “Even before the war arrived here – before the guns and the guards and the iron huts full of foreign prisoners – Orkney hadn’t been a safe place. People have their own beliefs this far north.” The narrative then reverts to October 1941, when an audacious attack proves that a safe harbour is not to be trusted, and that death can be complicated. The islanders are angry, at their exposure to war when some of their young men have already gone, the taking of their precious resources to the south, and then the arrival of prisoners who they see as a threat in so many ways. The two women want to stay on the island, as Con’s fears threaten to overwhelm them. The prisoners, as they are arrive, are men with pasts, with their reasons for leaving their families, with memories of fighting, dealing with the vulnerability of being prisoners in a far of land of cold winds and brutal treatment. As hope begins, even love, there are still forces that conspire against the beauty and peace that individuals may be able to find.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this book, with its setting in a special place, commemorating those who came as prisoners but who built landmarks that are still present on the islands, especially the “Italian Chapel” with its deceptive and clever beauty. There are so many layers to this story, beyond that of those who lived there, who came for a short time, and those who remember. The element of myth, the acceptance of the dangers of the restless sea or the stillness of mist, the starkness of island life combine to make this an irresistible read with so much depth and life force.