India, 1944: Iris Walker, daughter of the British Political Agent in the princely state of Ranipur, is a volunteer nurse, caring for soldiers wounded fighting the Japanese on the border with Burma. One evening the maharajah invites Iris and her parents to a dinner at the Lake Palace, where she meets the enigmatic Edward Stark, a friend of the prince. Edward is dashing, kind and considerate, and the attraction is instantly mutual.
But Edward is en route to a special mission in the Naga Hills, meaning they have only days together before Iris is once again left alone. To distract herself from longing for Edward, Iris volunteers to work in a mobile hospital unit travelling behind the front line of the 14th Army where she sees the horrors of war first-hand and realises how precious and precarious life can be.
In 1985, Iris, newly widowed, returns to India on holiday. A visit to the now neglected Lake Palace, brings back bitter memories from the 1940s that Iris cannot now let rest. She embarks on a journey into the Naga Hills to uncover long-buried truths from the war years.
Two widows, Iris and Elspeth, have decided to revisit India where they lived forty years earlier. They were not friends then but perhaps now they will have more in common. For while Elspeth had spent the 1940s going to the club and socialising with her mother, looking out for an occasional eligible bachelor, Iris was a volunteer nurse who liked to spend her spare time cycling in the countryside.
Soon Iris has time to herself and so she decides to investigate what had happened to the love of her life, a young man called Edward whom she met at the maharajah’s palace. There had seemed no doubt that he also loved her, when he had to travel into the hills on a mission, but after one letter, she never heard from him again.
We go back in time to share Iris’s experiences working with the medical unit behind enemy lines near the Burmese border. The sorrow and suffering make her appreciate the kindness and devotion to duty of Nigel, one of the doctors, but soon they are both engulfed in the violence of war.
In 1985 Iris rekindles her friendship with Sharmila, remembering how she helped to heal wounds between her and her husband Deepak. This interlude connects to the story Ann Bennett’s book The Lake Pavilion, but the events are clearly explained for those who haven’t read that book.
As I have come to expect from Ann Bennett this story is well researched, taking us back to the contrasts of wartime India and the dying days of the empire. Iris is a likeable character who has so far made the best of life despite sadness and the story’s threads are connected in a final satisfying conclusion.
My review of The Lake Pavilion by Ann Bennett