Review: The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

Orkney, 1940.

Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands.

Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick.

Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom.

But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.

A storm is coming . . .

In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.

Orkney, 1940s, World War II. After a horrific attack, twin sisters Dorothy and Constance move to a secluded bothy on one of the Orkney islands in an attempt to escape the past. But best laid plans; it is soon ordered that hundreds of Italian prisoners of war will be stationed on the island to construct barriers in aid of fortifying Orkney’s defences from enemy attacks.

The Metal Heart is a story about survival in a time when at any opportune moment a bomb could strike and obliterate land and life, when the tensions between foreign prisoners and their captors could erupt into violence, when the ghosts of one’s past could consume their entire being. It’s a story of family, community and hope, illuminating the joy and grief of each.

From the offset the tone was brimming with menace and looming brutality. With the sea battering rocks and cliff faces, wintry skies, the deafening explosions of bombs, and later prisoner huts and men working to the bone. Caroline Lea set the scene magnificently.

The story unfolds through the perspectives of sisters Dot and Con, and Italian prisoner, Cesare. Dot’s unflinching compassion for others, nursing them or rescuing them, and her curiosity about what life could be beyond war made her a compelling character to read. Con was a difficult character (at times) but it was impossible not to empathise with her, as she carries the weight of multiple traumas and is essentially broken in her heart and soul. She was desperate to keep Dot safe, and wanted simply for her and her sister to be secluded and cooped up inside away from danger. Con projected this desire and her fears onto Dot, which threatened to tear them apart. My heart truly ached for the sisters at these points. And lastly, Cesare was a gentle man who loved nothing more than creating art, trapped in the beast of a war he didn’t believe in. I found his distress and fear for his homeland, family and friends palpable. My empathy only deepened as he and Dot grew closer.

In many ways this is a timely read. The issue of violence toward women is at the heart of the story. One character in particular, Angus, perpetuates sexual harassment and sexual assault repeatedly. It was uncomfortable, exhausting, sickening and caused a cold fury to unfurl within me. It is a reoccurring theme throughout the story, even to the last pages, and by gosh was it truly harrowing at its height. 

The climax of the story was equally sorrowful and hopeful. I felt like I’d been pulled under a strong current, churned about and finally spat out; disorientated, disheartened but relieved to make it to the other side, and breathe, and ultimately profoundly moved by the story. The Metal Heart is nothing short of a treat for historical fiction aficionados. I’m excited to see what Lea cooks up next!

Buy It Now

Thank you to kindly to Michael Joesph Books for a gorgeous proof copy of the book. All thoughts are my own and honest opinion. 🌸🐚🌊✨

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