As mentioned last Sunday, Rosie Thomas's Iris and Ruby was recently announced as the winner of the 2007 Romantic Novel of the Year Award. And, in case that 'romantic' label causes you to lost interest, let me say at once that this is a mainstream novel which can be read with enjoyment by almost anyone who reads fiction, even if the idea of reading a romantic novel is anathema to them.
If you visit the web site of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association, you will find that, in the RNA's eyes, romantic fiction covers a wide range of genres and sub-genres. However, while the bodywork, as the RNA puts it, may be infinitely variable, 'the engine of romantic fiction is love and relationships.'
Relationships are, in fact, what Iris and Ruby is all about. Iris is an elderly Englishwoman, living in Cairo, and Ruby is her granddaughter. In between the two is Iris's daughter and Ruby's mother.
Now Mrs GOB will tell you that, by and large, I am not much interested in books, plays, and movies about 'relationships'. And she's right; generally speaking. However, as with much else, it all depends on how the thing is done, and in this case I had no problems at all.
Right from the very first page, I got the feeling that I was in safe hands. And so, of course, we are. Rosie Thomas has written 21 books, several of which have been major sellers, and she was a previous winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1985, with Sunrise. So this is a writer who knows what she is about.
Iris and Ruby moves in time between 1942 and the present day. In 1942 Iris finds herself in Cairo. The war is raging in the desert, and Iris falls hopelessly in love with Captain Alexander Molyneux -- known as Xan. By page 16 my notes say 'this is pretty wildly romantic'. But don't let that disturb you, if you think that the book will be soppy. It isn't like that at all.
By page 62 my notes say that 'this seems to me to have a magical, dreamlike quality about it which you rarely come across.' Ah, dear reader, if only we could bottle that quality, you and I, and dab on a bit of it here and there, on special occasions. How rich and famous we would be. But not even the best writers can achieve it all the time.
This novel captures, better than any other that I can think of, the anguish of women in time of war. The men go off and fight, and sometimes they come back, and sometimes they don't. (And if you want a real-life account of the same thing, don't miss the Countess of Ranfurly's wonderful To War with Whitaker.)
If you are interested in narrative technique, Iris and Ruby offers plenty of material for study. Rosie Thomas's use of viewpoint departs, at times, from what I could consider to be sound principles. But again, I never had any flicker of doubt: this is a writer who knows exactly what she is doing. Similarly the movements backwards and forwards in time are beautifully handled, as is the portrayal of an elderly woman who fears the onset of senility.
The book is not, of course, perfect. Nothing ever is. In particular, the portrait of the young Egyptian boy, Ash, is somewhat unrealistic. In my opinion, any young woman in the west who has an affair with a man from the Middle East is in for some unwelcome surprises. However, this is a minor problem; and in any case, all novels should be regarded as taking place in a parallel universe where things are not quite the same as they are here.
Rosie Thomas, by the way, is a formidable traveller. In addition to gaining first-hand knowledge of the desert, she has also worked on a research station in Antarctica, and has followed the Silk Route to Samarkand.
The cover of Iris and Ruby is also worth a note. The female figure on the front of the book (presumably Ruby) lacks a face. Modern thinking in the book trade, apparently, is that it is best to let the reader imagine what your leading characters look like.