Set amid the splendour and misery of North Africa during World War II, Julia Gregson’s novel Jasmine Nights is the tale of entertainer Saba Tarcan, who volunteers to sing for the British and Allied troops as a chance to get out of Wales and onto the stage where she truly feels alive. The half-Welsh Saba is desperate to sing despite her Turkish father’s absolute decree that she will not perform, but she cannot help herself – the singing is in her blood.
She sneaks out of the house to sing for burns victims – mainly pilots – in a hospital ward, and finds that she is inspired by their efforts and feels a need to help the war effort in her own way – not, as her mother does, making ammunition casings or uniforms in a Cardiff factory. So she volunteers for ENSA – the Entertainments National Service Association – of Britain, but her father all but disowns her when the acceptance letter arrives and she is called to London. Despite this she cannot help herself and proceeds to join a small company about to head to Egypt and join the North African campaign.
One of the pilots she met in the hospital is Dominic Benson, recovering from burns to his hands, arms and face. He is one of the lucky ones who receives treatment when needed and in a short time is able to head back where he too, truly feels alive – the skies, at the controls of a Spitfire or Kittyhawk. When Saba and Dom meet in London on the eve of departure they cannot ignore their connection, although both try to deny it. And being shipped out the next day doesn’t help.
The romance between Saba and Dom typifies the heightened emotions of wartime. With no time to spare they pursue their relationship as best they can, in Alexandria and Cairo – whenever they can. But of course the war will come between them, Saba is asked to play on her Turkish heritage and smattering of Arabic to sing for a Turkish businessman, and soon discovers hidden strengths that she can bring to the war effort. Dom, meanwhile, is sent back to the planes and is flying through danger once more.
The novel is a fairly typical tale of wartime romance, with enough detail of wartime Alexandria, Istanbul and Cairo to seem magical and still realistically gritty. It is easy to lose yourself in the flights of emotion that Saba feels when singing as Julia Gregson has done a good job of describing the similarity between a pilot at the helm of a flimsy Spitfire and Saba’s voice soaring on stage. While it’s not primarily a book about the War, it’s definitely about the way that relationships developed during the War – with passionate haste, heightened by the desperation and destruction surrounding them.
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