Having read and loved Rebecca Dean’s Enemies of the Heart, I was keen to read more of her novels – and chose Palace Circle as the next one I would read. It opens in Virginia, where eighteen year old Delia has just married Viscount Ivor Conisborough, over twenty years her senior and a member of the British aristocracy. At first she loves her new life in London, where she meets people such as Winston Churchill and Wallis Simpson, but she soon discovers there are secrets in her and Ivor’s life.
Palace Circle covers both world wars, and later includes Delia’s daughters, Petra and Davina, as narrators. The family moves to Cairo where Ivor is appointed as an advisor to King Fuad, and this is where much of the action is focussed during the Second World War.
In structure, story and setting, Palace Circle is quite similar to Enemies of the Heart. It opens before the First World War, is set in London and Cairo (Enemies is set in Yorkshire and Berlin), covers both world wars and features two generations of narrator. There are also plenty of love stories, heartbreaks and misunderstandings. I thoroughly enjoyed Enemies however, so while The Palace Circle wasn’t completely new, it was still exciting and absorbing.
As a lead character, although she later takes a backseat to her daughters, Delia is very likeable. She is young and perhaps rather naive at first, but she is a strong young woman and makes the best of life. The trials that she suffers through made me indignant on her behalf, and then happy when things began to work out for her. A lead character that inspires emotion is important in novels such as this, where characters are at least as important as the excitement of the history.
At first, the story is Delia’s alone, although it soon expands to include her daughters and others. The two world wars are important parts of the story and setting, but the focus is not on the history so much as on the characters we are reading about, and their place in the events of the time. The Second World War seemed to form a greater part of the story than the First, as there are war issues tied up in the stories of at least two main characters during the time. Additionally, being largely set in Cairo, the war seemed much closer at hand than the First World War had done in the setting of London.
Dean’s writing is very good, and perfectly suited to the style of novel and its setting in history. Characters and narration do not use language inappropriate for the time period, and Dean’s writing is not too informal or modern – yet neither is it stuffy and dull. She strikes just the right balance between evoking the tone of the period and writing for a modern readership.
While I think I preferred Enemies of the Heart due to its setting of Yorkshire and Berlin, and probably also because it was the first of Dean’s novels that I read, The Palace Circle is by no means inferior. It has great characters, plenty of twists and action, and gripping character-driven storylines. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have continued reading Rebecca Dean’s other novels.
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