I’m delighted today to be joining the blog blitz for A Tale of Two Sisters by Merryn Allingham, published by Canelo on 21st March: available via Amazon for kindle and in paperback, this book is also available via Kobo, Google Books and Apple Books. My thanks to Ellie Pilcher at Canelo for the invitation and support.
I sadly don’t have a review to share this time, but I have had the pleasure of experiencing Merryn’s writing before – I very much enjoyed The Secret of Summerhayes, and you’ll find my review here. I also featured an earlier book, The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, together with a guest post – you’ll find it here. And I have to say that this one looks every bit as enticing…
Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost.
When Alice Verinder’s beloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.
Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.
Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected ardour, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?
An emotional historical drama perfect for fans of Linda Finlay and Rosie Goodwin.
So, no review – but an opportunity to share an extract from this rather lovely-looking book…
Constantinople, August, 1905
After three days in the haremlik, Lydia felt bemused. Both by the vastness of the place and by the huge number of women who lived beneath its roof. She had already met a number of them in the space that functioned as a communal living room, and they had been charming and courteous to the stranger in their midst. One, Sevda, had been especially kind. She was a young woman, around Lydia’s own age, and fabulously beautiful if you dared look long enough. But like all the harem’s female inhabitants, she was covered from head to toe in a way that made discovery difficult. But Lydia could see enough to be fascinated – a graceful bearing, beautiful skin, kohl- edged eyes and fingernails half painted with henna.
She was very different from Naz, the girl appointed to wait on her. Lydia had disliked Naz on sight and nothing since had made her change her mind.
‘Do I have to have a servant?’ she had asked Sevda after her first day.
‘Naz is a slave. She must serve,’ Sevda had replied.
‘But I hate the whole idea of having a slave, particularly one who doesn’t like me.’
‘You are wrong, Miss Lydia. Naz does not dislike you. You are her mistress and she must do her job. Her family is very poor and have sold her so she can have a better future.’
‘A better future as a slave!’ Lydia could not help raising her voice. It was an extraordinary claim.
‘She is a slave for nine years only, then she is freed. Her colour is white, so she works for guests and important ladies. And while she is a slave, she has good food, good clothes, and she learns the Koran and to read and write. Also to sew and embroider and, if she has talent, to play a musical instrument or to sing or dance. These are very good skills. When she is freed, she will be found a husband if she wishes. And maybe he will be an important man in the Court. But if she does not marry, she has a pension and will be looked after.’
It was a novel idea: slavery as a means of social advancement rather than a badge of disdain. But it did not mean she liked Naz any more and she certainly didn’t trust her. Still, Sevda’s words had hit home and she understood she must tolerate the girl. She could not be responsible for destroying another woman’s future.
‘And what of you, Sevda? Did your parents send you here?’
‘I come to the Valide Sultan to train when I am very young. My father was a most brave soldier. He won many medals, so then he became part of the askeri. They are the rulers. Now my father is an important man – he is deputy to the Grand Vizier.’
‘So, you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth?’
She looked puzzled, but said simply, ‘I am most fortunate.’
Every morning, Sevda called at her room, bringing dishes of scented sherbet that she had prepared herself or a small gift of fruit. Lydia was waiting for her now, since today she would be meeting her pupils for the first time and Sevda was to escort her to the schoolroom. She had been there once already under the girl’s guidance and taken time to set out her desk in what she hoped looked a professional manner. It hadn’t made her feel any less anxious. She was no teacher and she feared that Esma and Rabia would soon discover the fact.
But time was getting on this morning, and she worried she would be late for this very important meeting. Sevda must have been delayed and, unwilling to wait any longer, she set off on her own. She was still confused by the warren of narrow corridors that often led nowhere, but the journey to the schoolroom had seemed a relatively simple one and she was sure she could reach it without guidance.
In this she was wrong. It needed only one false turn and she was in a passageway she did not recognise. Another turning and the narrow corridor was even less recognisable. There was a flight of stairs in front of her. Had Sevda and she walked up a staircase to the schoolroom? She could not recall doing so, but now she wondered if she was mistaken. At the top of the stairs, she found herself in yet another passage.
There was some kind of construction halfway along, hanging from the ceiling. She walked up to it to take a look. A cage, it seemed, an iron cage. What on earth was it for? Something told her it was for nothing good.
‘Miss Lydia, what are you doing here?’ Sevda hurried up to her, slightly out of breath, an anxious expression just discernible beneath the thin silk veil.
Lydia pointed to the cage. ‘Whatever is that?’
‘Nothing that need worry you.’
‘But I want to know.’
‘You should not be here, Miss Lydia. These are the concubines’ quarters. Allow me to escort you to the schoolroom. I am sorry I arrive late, but the Valide Sultan called me to her. She wishes to see you. But later.’
She took a firm grip of Lydia’s arm. ‘Come, please.’
‘I’ll come when you tell me what I am looking at.’ All Lydia’s stubbornness came into play.
Sevda gave a long sigh, as though she were beginning to recognise the determination of the young woman she must guide.
‘It is a punishment cage.’
‘For what? For whom?’
‘For concubines who do not behave,’ Sevda said curtly. ‘Now you come with me.’
Lydia stood, her mouth slightly open, unable to move. She was aghast. But Sevda tugged at her arm and eventually she allowed herself to be pulled back along the passage, down the staircase, and along a winding route that led to the schoolroom.
A cage for women who did not behave. It was an image she feared she would never banish from her mind. But as she entered the schoolroom, two bright young faces beamed at her from identical desks and she began to feel a little more cheerful.
‘Good morning, Miss Lydia,’ they chanted together.
‘Good morning, girls.’ She was delighted by their welcome and determined to blank from her vision the dreadful sight she had just encountered.
‘I will leave you now,’ Sevda said, and slipped quietly out of the room.
Doesn’t that make you want to read on? Wishing you every success with this one, Merryn…
About the author
Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood moving around the UK and abroad. Unsurprisingly it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world.
Merryn still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
She has written seven historical novels, all mysteries with a helping of suspense and a dash of romance – sometimes set in exotic locations and often against a background of stirring world events.