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The Winter Rose - Jennifer Donnelly

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

DESCRIBED as an epic tale of secret love and hidden passions, The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly delivers not only what it promises but a whole lot more besides. Moreover, it will hold you enthralled from start to finish.

India Selwyn Jones, in many ways an unlikely heroine, is a well-bred and headstrong young woman who, having defied the strict conventions of Victorian England and become a doctor, is determined to practice where she’s most needed – in the most dangerous part of London; Whitechapel.

It’s here that she meets and falls in love with Sid Malone, one of the capital’s most notorious gangsters. But is Sid really as bad as his reputation would have us believe or is he simply the unfortunate victim of circumstance?

As India attempts to answer these and other questions, her fiance Freddie Lytton, MP for Tower Hamlets, sets his sights on number 10 Downing Street and if putting a noose round Sid Malone’s neck helps in some small way, then so be it.

The Winter Rose is the sort of book that draws you effortlessly into another world – a world of startling contrasts; of rich and poor; good and evil; of London with its “stinking river mud” and “towering Mayfair” mansions; of Africa with its beauty and underlying menace.

The characters too are three dimensional and leap from the pages, no holds (or indeed language) barred, which is as it should be. As for Sid, with his “heavy boots…flat cap” and “red hair bound into a pony tail”, he’s not exactly the archetypal hero but a convincing one nonetheless. While India blossoms from ugly duckling (with “beastly” specs – any thicker and she’d be “wearing binoculars”) into beautiful swan.

The Winter Rose is, of course, primarily a love story. It’s also part thriller and part historical drama. In fact, it’s a rollicking good tale that would, I’m sure, adapt well on screen (and for Sid, think Damian Lewis!). It also has a habit of leading you up the proverbial garden path for just when you think it’s all coming together for India and Sid, something forces them apart – though with a hundred or so pages still to go, you kind of suspected it would…

It’s also meticulously researched – the medical scenes, for example, are accurate and not embellished or sensationalised for the sake of dramatic effect. As for the tunnel sequence, so shockingly realistic with its overpowering sense of claustrophobia, it could have come straight out of a horror story (I’m referring here to India’s experience).

There are, of course, many more characters, some you may have met before in The Tea Rose, others entirely new. And there’s a dramatic sub-plot involving Sid’s brother Seamie, Willa, the girl he loves, and Kilimanjaro. But it’s there for a very good reason.

As you may have gathered, The Winter Rose is actually a sequel and, I believe, will eventually become part of a trilogy. However, you don’t neccessarily have to have read The Tea Rose to enjoy it, as it’s very much a novel in its own right – and a very good one too. And with just over 700 pages (paperback edition), it’s guaranteed to absorb you for hours.