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The Water Horse - Julia Gregson

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

JULIA Gregson’s second novel, East of the Sun, was afforded the distinction of becoming a Richard & Judy Summer Read. However, her first novel The Water Horse should certainly not be overlooked.

The story of two young people, the beautiful and spirited Catherine Carreg and the wild but charismatic Deio Jones, The Water Horse begins in 1844 in a small coastal community in Wales, before moving to London and finally the Crimea.

After helplessly watching her mother die in childbirth, Catherine vows never to be in such a position again and runs away to London in the hope of becoming a doctor or nurse. Reluctantly aiding her escape is cattle drover’s son Deio, the childhood friend she has been forbidden to see. Once in London, Catherine secures a position in Miss Nightingale’s home for sick governesses, before travelling to the Crimea to serve as a nurse in one of the most traumatic wars in history.

The Water Horse was, in fact, inspired by the words inscribed on a plaque the author came across in Pumpsaint in mid-Wales. Situated beside a small chapel door, it said that in 1853, a woman called Jane Evans ran away with the Welsh cattle drovers in order to nurse with Florence Nightingale at Scutari. Unable to find out more about her, Gregson decided to fictionalise her instead.

Well written, The Water Horse paints a vivid, warts-and-all picture of a period in history that is largely overlooked by novelists and filmmakers alike. And it certainly explodes a myth or two about Miss Nightingale. Even so, it left me wanting more and I must confess to a vague disappointment that my wishes were unfullfilled.

As for Catherine and Deio, and indeed the novel’s numerous other characters, they are well drawn and totally believable – even the odious Doctor Cavendish, whose treatment of Catherine is nothing short of appalling. Yet here is a gifted man pushed to the very limits of endurance by utter exhaustion and traumatised by the shocking sights and sounds of war.

And just as women’s place in society is highlighted, so too is the role of horses in war. The plight of the latter is brought to the fore when Deio follows Catherine to the Crimea with a consignment for the cavalry. If you’ve read or seen the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, you’ll certainly appreciate Gregson’s homage to these beautiful, loyal and sensitive creatures.

In a will-he-won’t-he situation, Gregson cleverly uses the concluding chapters to build tension but the ending, though satisfactory to a degree, is far too abrupt for my liking. A small criticism yet one that nevertheless says much for the author’s skill in drawing the reader into Catherine and Deio’s world and maintaining their interest.

Combining historical fact with fiction, The Water Horse is an enthralling read and ideally suited to lazy sun drenched days by the pool or equally, to cosy evenings by the fire. As such it comes highly recommended.