Identical twins Dorothy and Constance are haunted by their parents’ mysterious disappearance near Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. To start anew, they settle on the neighboring island of Selkie Holm in the autumn of 1941. Against the backdrop of World War II, a German U-boat sinks the British battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. Eight hundred and thirty-four men lost their lives, prompting Winston Churchill to order the construction of defensive barricades between the islands. Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa, are transported to Selkie Holm to quarry stone and build the barriers.
Many of the islanders are hostile towards the prisoners, but the twenty-three-year-old sisters see beyond the surface and witness the suffering of sick and wounded men enduring the harsh Orkney winter. Driven by compassion, they selflessly volunteer to nurse the prisoners.
Dorothy is drawn to Cesare, a young man broken by the horrors of battle. As the war persists, her relationship with Cesare threatens her bond with Constance. Having relied on each other since their parents’ disappearance, the sisters now face a challenging dilemma—duty versus desire.
The Metal Heart is a unique blend of war, art, history, action, and romance. Set in Scotland’s lesser-known Orkney Islands during World War II, this novel captivated me with its exploration of the Italian Chapel, a fascinating historical site. Among the POWs was Domenico Chiocchetti an artist who was tasked with transforming two Nissen huts into a chapel (you can learn more about the chapel at https://www.orkney.com/listings/the-italian-chapel).
While the book’s pacing was slow in parts because of excessive philosophizing, overall, it was an engaging read. Some UK reviewers claim the book is historically inaccurate, but in my case, ignorance is bliss. Overall, The Metal Heart is a poignant novel of love, jealousy, and conscience, and I enjoyed it. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary review copy of the novel. The opinions are my own.