At the end of Julia Gregson’s Jasmine Nights, the hero remarks to the heroine that, in flying a plane, taking off is easy. It’s the landing that is tricky. In this novel, the opposite is true. The beginning of the story drags – ponderous and tensionless, though exquisitely written and fairly poignant. It is only as the landing pad had been sighted and we begin to descend that the somewhat fragmented feel of evaporates, and the novel shows what it truly can be. The pacing slows again, after a while, but by then I found myself engaged enough to race onward, suddenly emotionally invested in these characters.
Saba Tarcan, our heroine, is a Turkish-Welsh singer who dreams of performing, even as her overbearing, uncomprehending father forbids her to sing. Dominic Benson, our hero, is a fighter pilot who has just been shot down – his severely burned face reconstructed by plastic surgery, his best friend dead in a similar crash. It’s 1942, and there’s a war on. Saba and Dom meet in the hospital, when Saba comes to sing for the convalescing soldiers. Later, they reconnect in London, when Saba has an audition for a theatrical troupe that entertains the soldiers overseas. Saba and Dom’s nascent relationship is rent apart by the logistical realities of war, but both end up with a common posting: Egypt.
The parallels between their two words, showbiz and war, are one of the most intriguing themes of the novel. Both are places wherein most people would be miserable – and yet, for Saba and Dom, in these respective fields each has a calling. Saba needs to sing, and Dom needs to fly. Both recognize the dangers of their callings, but also that they cannot stop. War becomes a show – one that, as the saying goes, must go on, as everyone labors to keep his or her end up. Showbusiness troops along too, accommodating itself to WWII. Saba, officially part of the army as an entertainer, is also part of the war effort. Her friends and compatriots are like Dom’s war buddies, with relationships forged quickly in stress and uncertainty.
Jasmine Nights a novel about the little things. The scent of fresh jasmine, a smear of blood on a pair of coveralls. The details that our world is made of. It is also about the little people, the ones who are mere cogs in the machine. Once it finally gets around to it, the plot focuses on Saba’s career in espionage, and nowhere is this littleness more readily apparent. Saba is drafted as a British spy unexpectedly, told that she is the perfect candidate – a beautiful half-Turkish singer – in a moment when Istanbul is the most important neutral city in the world. The summons comes out of the blue, for both Saba and the reader. Spying doesn’t seem to fit, either for Saba (as she herself recognizes) or for the book. But this is only because the novel is still finding itself.
This book took me a month and a night to read. I did not time the days it took me exactly, but for about a month, I attempted to read Jasmine Nights. I would pick it up, in free moments, and read a chapter, or half a chapter, or three chapters. Then I would put it down again, move on to something more pressing without giving the book a second thought. I felt no drive to pick it back up, only an idle curiosity. While I admire Gregson’s writing style – her prose, at its best, resembles but does not quite equal that of Sherry Thomas – her story left me somewhat cold. I felt disconnected from the characters, even though I liked them, and the slow pacing served not to make me revel in the narrative, but to drag me down. I felt uncharacteristically apathetic about the story; I wanted to like it, but it did not engender strong emotions.
And then things got interesting. After about a month of uninspired, stop-and-go reading, I reached the novel’s climax, and suddenly I could not put the book down. I finished the rest of the novel in one go, staying up until the wee hours of the morning. The climax of Jasmine Nights has a tautness, a tension, that I dearly wish the rest of the novel had too. I do not mean to imply that the climax seems out of place. Not at all. Without giving too much away, this is the beating heart of the novel revealed, the moment where some of its most important themes truly blossom. Saba’s role in the espionage, it proves, is minuscule. As important as she is – as important as it is for every single cog to fit together smoothly – she is herself only tiny detail. In seeing this, the rest of the book becomes clear.
Jasmine Nights does an excellent job at showing the atmosphere of Alexandria in 1942, and at showing the lost youth of what would come to be called the Greatest Generation. However, in many ways the novel falls flat. The romance never quite kindles to passion, the pacing of the whole story is uneven, and the book feels languid, as if the exciting times it portrays involved no energy. There is a great potential, but that potential is not reached until nearly the end, and then it’s lost again. I enjoyed aspects of this book, and I rooted for Saba and Dom to persevere and earn their happy ending, but I found that the way I could best appreciate Jasmine Nights was not by thinking of it as a book about either of the things it is billed as being about – a romance and the story of female entertainers used as spies in WWII. Rather, Jasmine Nights is about the tiny particulars that make up the whole. I just wish that all the parts of this book had better come together.