Little-known fact # 1916
One hundred and three years ago,
in the wake of the Easter Rising,
defeated Irish rebels surrendered
to a British general.
That same day, a defeated
British general surrendered
to the Ottoman Turks..
The year is 1921. Blanche Fiore, 28, is a bright but unsuccessful poet who earns her living as a foreign correspondent in Paris. She reports on the literary life of the city, in particular the coterie of British and American expatriates whose "hub" is Sylvia Beach's bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.
Blanche's life has not been a happy one. Her childhood was dominated by an overbearing father, who still exercises control over her. She yearns for stability but senses that she cannot achieve this alone; she longs for marriage.
Her income is derived largely from the sale of her articles to American magazines and newspapers. It's not enough; Blanche is forced to live in a seedy little hotel on the Left Bank.
It was not inevitable that she should meet Robert Lampeter; his world is not hers. An Englishman brought up in India, he's a veteran of the ill-fated campaign in Mesopotamia, the Iraq of the present day.
The campaign of 1915 eerily prefigured the recent invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Even the oil played a role.
And the Ottoman slaughter of Christians in 1915 has undeniable echoes in the present-day atrocities being committed by Islamic State in the same region.
That Lampeter lives in Paris is a consequence of inheriting property belonging to an uncle. He also came into a great fortune.
Blanche and Lampeter meet by chance in the park. Her first clue to his past is his pronounced limp. There's immediate attraction; they exchange pleasantries. Matters might have ended there had both not been invited to a dinner party the following week.
The party is hosted by Eleanor Montsain, an arts patron and society lady, wife of a British diplomat, Simon Montsain. It's a fundraiser to sell subscriptions to a forthcoming novel, whose author is the guest of honor. He is James Joyce and the book is Ulysses.
Blanche is delighted to meet Lampeter again, and the feeling is mutual. She learns that he's a society photographer. He seems to have no affinity with the literary guests, who include Sylvia Beach; he's an old army comrade of Simon Montsain.
Lampeter knows that he must enter Blanche's world if he's to win her. He offers to do her portrait; she offers to introduce him to the bookish world of Shakespeare and Company.
Blanche's efforts to woo Lampeter encounter two obstacles. The first is Emily Edwards, a servant in his household. She's just turned 18. When she accepts a position as Eleanor Montsain's lady's maid, she undergoes a metamorphosis into an elegant and very attractive young woman. Lampeter can't fail to notice her.
He's as yet unaware that Emily has been infatuated by him for some time.
This infatuation, coupled with a series of misunderstandings, and a smear campaign started by Emily, will upset Blanche's plans.
The second obstacle is the legacy of war. Mesopotamia and a brutal incarceration in Turkey have damaged Lampeter psychologically as well as physically. Blanche discovers this by degrees, as his behavior is sometimes highly erratic. He also suffers blackouts.
As their love affair develops, she vows to discover the causes. Those causes, we learn, lie buried in the sands of Iraq. . . .
Fact blends seamlessly with fiction in this epic and unforgettable novel.
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