Lawrenson frames her beautiful three-pronged story around resistance fighter Marthe Lincel (a character from her previous novel, The Lantern). Blind since five, Martha becomes involved in a dangerous movement centered in the foothills close to the great lavender fields on the Valensole Platea in Southern France. Taken in by the kindly Musset family who apprentice her at their perfume factory Distillerie Musset, Marthe must learn to put aside her differences for the common cause.
In these first few weeks of July 1943, the violence is coming ever closer. Marthe senses the disintegration of what passes for normality. The Germans are coming, determined to root out Allied soldiers like the two American servicemen the Mussets are hiding. Marthe’s mission is to help the Americans get to a clandestine landing strip and a night-flight that will eventually take them north. Plunged into a dangerous world of spies and double agents, Marthe finds herself connected to the “Poet,” the “Engineer,” and a resistance movement made up of a spider’s mesh of tiny strands.
The stakes are huge in this high-tension drama. There many moving emotional scenes where threat is intensified—not just for Marthe but also for Iris Nightingale. Lawrenson’s third story has Iris newly promoted to intelligence assistant for a secret organization headquartered at Baker Street. Their sole responsibility is to gather intelligence about all aspects of occupied France. While Iris herself has never regretted not being chosen to go, her sharp memory and instinctive grasp of detail have allowed her to obtain a measure of respect from her boss, the officious Mavis Acton.
Like Marthe’s fragile fragment of a half-forgotten dream, Iris’s journey is about finding love in a time of adversity. In the fog, grime and smoke of London, “bleached by the color of war,“ Iris meets dashing Xavier Descours. Ostensibly recruited to France to organize the supply of the British SOE and the resistance, Xavier is a charmer who runs terrible risks. Rumored to be like a cat with nine lives, Xavier’s olive-skinned good looks, easy manner and propensity to flirt make Iris feel lightheaded and raw.
From Iris and Xavier’s first kiss in Green Park to their nights under the eaves at Tavistock Square, to the flames above a bomb-blasted London, Lawrenson moves us toward the liberation of France and to Iris’s hope that Xavier will someday return. After a disastrous security breach, Xavier’s work with the resistance is questioned. Could Iris have been blind to her Xavier’s true loyalty? In these sections, Lawrenson recreates a savage sense of loyalty in the British and French resistance, conjuring brave images of tough Allied flyers and spies willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect freedom.
Lawrenson attempts to couch Iris’s unanswered questions in the present day by introducing us to garden designer Ellie Brooke, who arrives in the sun-baked Mediterranean Island of Porquerolles. Desperately in need of heat and light, Ellie has been lured by the flattering terms of debonair Laurent de Fayols. He wants Ellie to restore his memorial garden below his estate, the Domaine de Fayols. Seduced by the wide blue sky and lustrous sea, “all light and space,” it doesn’t take long for Ellie to become entranced by this wild, romantic place, a place of early summer cicadas, towering pines and eucalyptus trees. She suddenly feels a sense of freedom more intense than she has ever experienced.
As Ellie realizes the garden may reflect the misfortunes of others, Lawrenson succeeds in offering her readers a novel that delves into the larger issues of life and death. Eventually Iris, Marthe and Ellie’s lives come full circle, connected in surprising ways. The author focuses on Porquerolles’ fabled beauty, shot through with shock and a sense of waste. The illusion of the sea garden is ever-present, along with a ghostly visitor from the past and Laurent’s mother, grizzled old Mme. de Fayols, who unnerves Ellie at every turn with her vague, perhaps even dangerous psychological disorder.
Beautiful images abound: Ellie’s drive and determination; Iris who aches for Xavier and for her years living so many variations on a dream; an aircraft that beats through the dark, climbing into the night sky; a sketch of a man called Gabriel. Lawrenson bathes her novel in an otherworldly glow, the slow and steady voice of Ellie transporting us to the past and toward Iris’s lost and broken love.