The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea – Book review

What a beautiful, emotional slice of historical fiction The Metal Heart was! I love this genre – the blending of facts and real events with the poetic licence of fiction really captivates me. Mix in Caroline Lea’s amazing ability to weave a heart-wrenchingly emotive love story – both the romantic kind and the one between sisters – and I’m hooked!

Opening sentence: Of all the ways to die, drowning must be the most peaceful.

The raw beauty of Orkney

Set in 1941, during WWII on the Orkney islands in remote, northern Scotland, this story is narrated by flame-haired, 23-year-old twin sisters Dorothy (Dot) and Constance (Con), as well as Cesare, an Italian prisoner of war.

Dot and Con live on (the fictional) Selkie Holm in a tiny Bothy, an old shepherd’s house that was abandoned and they now take refuge in. They moved from one of the bigger, more populated islands to this smaller one with no people after an incident makes Con wary of being around men.

It’s said that anyone living there will go mad. It’s said that bad luck will follow them.

It is decided that the islands need more war defence, so 500 Italian prisoners of war are brought over to build sea barriers between the islands. The men’s camp is made on Selkie Holm – the twin’s island. They are not happy about this but their lives do end up becoming entwined with the men of the camp, particularly one named Cesare, who changes life for the twins, particularly Dot.

The Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel (take a little virtual tour of it here) is a Roman Catholic church that was really built by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War on the island of Lamb Holm, constructed from two nissen huts, cement, found materials and the power of craftsmen’s hands. It takes centre stage in The Metal Heart and is truly an amazing monument to peace and hope – both in real life and in the story.

The chapel is more than just a building for all of us. Somehow, it’s a bridge. Somehow, it’s an outstretched hand.

During the weeks in the run up to The Metal Heart‘s publication date, author Caroline Lea posted pictures of her research trip to Orkney on her Twitter. It’s so fascinating to see both an insight to her thought process and the amazing scenery that inspired her book. It’s also where I saw that there is an actual metal heart embedded into the floor of the chapel.

Such a rich and informing read

I loved all the themes that are explored in this book – from how women are made to feel scared and vulnerable by men all the time, the abuse of power, the loss of identity, the true impact of war, the strength of love. Yes, there may seem like a lot but they were all so effortlessly woven into both the story and each other, it just felt rich and so satisfying to read. And some of the wonderful sentences just made my heart ache, this is such a marvellously written book.

Weirdly, I read The Metal Heart straight after finishing Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone: both books are set in Scotland and both feature identical twin sisters as their lead characters. What are the chances? Themes of identity and loss crop up in both too, but otherwise, they are very different reads. Both excellent though!

Aside from Con, Dot and Cesare’s story (which you may have gathered, I loved), I also adored learning about the Italian Chapel. I had no idea it existed, so it led to a little Googling and discovering more about this time in history. Books that tell me a great story and teach me something new – my favourite combination.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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