Fiona McIntosh, Nightingale (2014)

“It is impossible not to weep,” Fiona McIntosh concludes her acknowledgements to Nightingale, “when you walk through the Lone Pine cemetery, now so peaceful and picturesque.”53 Lone Pine is the site of Australia’s national memorial. Released in October 2014 on the eve of the Gallipoli centenary, McIntosh’s Nightingale is dedicated to a family member buried there but its interests, too, lie in the war experience of men and women, Turkish and Australian. If Scates and Walker occasionally raise hopes for romance only to dismiss them, McIntosh, a household name for bestselling genre fiction, looks to the war for the courageous cast and countless deferrals demanded by popular romance: “In the name of forgiveness,” teases Nightingale’s blurb, “cultures come together, enemies embrace and forbidden passions ignite—but by the end of the nail-biting conclusion, who will be left to capture Nurse Nightingale’s heart?”

“‘Exotic for Aussies, yes?,’” quips Turkish soldier A^ar Shahin one- third into the novel during a ceasefire on the Peninsula.54 As he engages his Australian enemy in a conversation about his hometown, Istanbul, he also sums up one of the major selling points of McIntosh's brand of historical romance. “Readers want to armchair travel to exotic places,” she explains in her guidebook to popular genre fiction:

They want to feel like they can taste the flavour of mint juleps in the height of summer, sense a shiver as they trudge through ice-crusted landscape, and know the glamorous feel of a hugely expensive ballgown against their skin.55

Avar’s interlocutor only knows the Ottoman capital from photographs; McIntosh’s readers, like the audience of Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner, released in the same year, will be taken there—into the city’s busy streets, but also, just like Crowe’s Australian farmer, into the home of a bereft Turkish family. Before then, again, like Crowe’s film, the novel cuts across to the Turkish lines to A^ar Shahin. Like Scates’ Ahmed, A^ar is a reluctant soldier: “taking a man’s life was a long way from the poet and storyteller he wished to be. ”56 But A^ar is a volunteer, not a conscript. The son of a mathematics professor, not a farmer, he considers the man who killed Archduke Ferdinand “his Serbian peer who had found the courage to cast aside fear and stand up for what he felt was right.”57 In the line of battle, however, he discovers sympathies for the Australians in the opposing trench, especially light horseman Jamie Wren, whose “gentle, sad music ... spoke to A^ar of dreams on the wind, carried on the wings of birds to families in faraway lands.”58 Ultimately, Avar’s prayer book, given to Jamie during the armistice, will save Jamie’s life, while A^ar, struggling to cope, takes his own. Before that, however, the young soldier-poet draws attention to the novel’s key metaphor: his surname, he explains, translates as “hawk,” and thus British nurse Claire Nightingale, Australian light horseman Jamie Wren, and Turkish soldier A^ar Shahin, brought together by the war, form one “winged family.”59

Born in Britain but raised in New Zealand and Australia, McIntosh’s well-travelled female protagonist is reminiscent of the exceptionally mobile Australian women in Mabel Balcombe Brooke’s wartime romances. Like Brookes herself, these women get to follow their husbands to Cairo and London, even France, places out of bounds for most Australian readers. Broken Idols (1917) comes with photographs of an Egyptian lemonade seller, Luxor Temple and the banks of the Nile, among others, all snapped with the author’s own Kodak, in the hope, as a foreword put it, that the book might bring “back to some of the soldiers of Australia a vision of the minarets and domes, the vivid skies and velvet nights of mysterious Egypt.”60Nightingale, too, contains such textbook Orientalism. When Claire travels to Istanbul after the war to return Avar’s prayer book to his bereaved father, the women of the family invite her to join them in a traditional bath. Still skinny from years nursing on the

Western Front, Claire finds that she “lacked the enviable fecund appearance of the younger, exotic women around her.”61

Sympathetic scholars of romance have highlighted the genre’s capacity to create a “free space” for readers, and temporarily relieve them of their responsibilities to others, while also allowing them to escape “figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine’s similar needs are adequately met.”62 In this regard historical romance, with its nostalgic purchase on the past, is not so much a socially conservative form but able to “pose a significant challenge to the present. 63 Nightingale is a fairy tale of cross-cultural understanding. Brookes’ racial anxieties have given way to a happy transnationalism (unencumbered by notions of race or class): Claire is full of admiration for an elegant Cairo “that somehow blended its Arabic heritage with the tall European buildings of sandstone.”64 As she sheds her clothes in the Turkish bath she senses that she is embarking on something “so alien, so completely opposed to all things British” and yet she treasures this “new awakening to a culture not her own,” even though, at the novel’s end, she will find herself on the side of the Australian light horse- man.65 Claire receives affirmation from one of Avar’s aunts, whom she previously complimented on her excellent language skills: “‘I think it is important to understand the world around us even though we must stay in our homes.’” Kashifa explains, “‘The world is changing.’”66 Stuart Ward and Mark McKenna have raised objections to the recasting of the Gallipoli story along such friendly, cosmopolitan lines: “Tales of Turkish-Australian friendship,” they observe, “are repeated out of all proportion to the number of times the events actually occurred.”67 As if in anticipation of such reservations, McIntosh allows her two soldiers a brief moment of historical analysis. A^ar ventures a (postcolonial) interpretation: “‘our countries have been coerced to support bigger, powerful countries that want to rule others, take their resources, enslave them.’” McIntosh’s narrator reveals that Jamie “didn’t fully share that opinion but the sentiment felt right. ‘I have no quarrel with you, mate.’”68

 
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