Photographs of Caroline Lea and Hope Adams

Caroline Lea and Hope Adams. Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

There’s an interesting synchroncity between two gripping novels out this spring: one is set on a remote island, the other on a convict ship, which means in both cases characters are isolated by the sea. But there's something else that binds them: authors Caroline Lea and Hope Adams (better known as Adele Geras) both found inspiration in fascinating moments from history – and imagined, “what if?” – to write their books, The Metal Heart and Dangerous Women.

“Both of our books are talking about creating an artistic, beautiful thing out of very hard circumstances,” says Adams. In her case, for Dangerous Women, it was the Rajah Quilt, a massive three-metre by three-metre quilt that was made by female prisoners en route from London to Australia by ship in 1841. For Lea, it was the Italian Chapel built by two Italian prisoners of war on Lamb Holm, in the Orkney islands during the Second World War.

Adams’ encountered the quilt in 2009 during an exhibition of quilts at the V&A. “First of all, it’s very beautiful. But there was a plaque beside it which told me it had been made on this voyage of the Rajah transporting women and convicts under the supervision of a matron, Kezia,” she explains. “There was a fact at the bottom that made me stop in my tracks, and that was that 23-year-old Kezia fell in love with, and was engaged to, the captain before the ship reached Tasmania.”

This was startling: Kezia – who Adams brings to life in Dangerous Women – was “a serious, very religious, very pious young woman. If I’d presented that to my editor, she would have been like: what? It provided the germ of the story that was to become: 'what if there should be somebody on that ship who wasn’t who she said she was?'"

Lea, by contrast, was on the hunt for a location to place her twin protagonists, Dot and Con, to challenge the traditionally male and “Blitz spirit” representations of that era. “I searched around for a wartime island,” Lea says. “I was born in Jersey, which was under occupation during the war, but I didn’t want to write a book set there. Instead, I stumbled over the story of this Prisoner of War camp in Orkney, where hundreds of Italians turn up and tear apart the community and exert strange forces on this isolated place.” Stumbling upon the story of the Chapel in research, she says, was “a lightbulb moment”.

The remoteness of Orkney – similar in feel to the Icelandic setting of Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman – also allowed Lea to tell a different kind of war story. “It enabled me to write about women’s experience of war as well; lots of wartime novels focus on the male experience. I wanted this to be something different; the women are thrown into this threatening atmosphere where they could be bombed, and have enemy forces among them.”

Lea conjures that tension marvellously within the first few pages: the twins are resistant to return to the home they grieve for, and make do with a ramshackle hut on a remote island as submarines threaten the Orcadian way of life. Much as The Metal Heart becomes an unlikely story of love and sisterhood, so Dangerous Women breathes a thrilling whodunnit plot into a historical relic. “Once you add a ticking clock to a sea voyage, everything just gets more exciting,” says Adams. “I wanted to show both awfulness of being all crammed together in not very luxurious conditions on this ship as well the camaraderie and working together.”

In doing so, both books build worlds around slithers of history that remain little-known: Lea puts a romance at the heart of the remarkable, still-standing chapel surrounded by the North Sea, and Adams injects danger and sisterhood into a Victorian artefact. Both 

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  • The Metal Heart

  • Wild, beautiful and spellbinding, this is the compelling wartime story of freedom and love on the windswept islands of Orkney

    'Powerful . . . Lea writes beautifully of island life and love, and the sacrifices that both demand' THE TIMES

    'Deeply evocative of Orkney and its wild beauty. A stunning tale of sisters, salvation and sacrifice' Emma Stonex

    The sky is clear, star-stamped and silvered by the waxing gibbous moon.
    No planes have flown over the islands tonight; no bombs have fallen for over a year.

    Orkney, 1940.

    Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands.

    Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick.

    Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom.

    But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

    Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters - their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.

    A storm is coming . . .

    In the tradition of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.

    'Confirms Lea as a highly original and inventive writer' Sunday Times

    'A tense, passionate and deeply atmospheric novel . . . Caroline's beautiful transported me entirely to another time and land' Susan Fletcher

    'A beautiful, heart-breaking tale of grief, love and the bond between sisters' Louise Hare

    'Myth, legend, fear and superstition all play a part in this intensely atmospheric novel' Choice Magazine

    'Atmospheric, heart-wrenching, evocative' Gytha Lodge

    Praise for Caroline Lea:

    'Enthralling' Stacey Halls, author of The Familiars and The Foundling

    'Fantastic' The Times

    'Memorable and compelling' Sarah Moss, author of The Times Book of the Year Ghost Wall

    'Intensely written and atmospheric' Daily Mail

    'Gripped me in a cold fist. Beautiful' Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

    'Brilliant' Daily Express

  • Buy the book
  • Dangerous Women

  • The compelling, gorgeously atmospheric tale of female friendship, redemption and betrayal, inspired by the incredible true story of female convicts at sea

    'Beautifully written, an epic sea voyage with an intriguing murder mystery . . . an unputdownable read' KATIE FFORDE

    'I was thoroughly entranced by the story, and the great murder mystery kept me guessing throughout. A real joy to read'
    5***** Reader Review

    'A gorgeous and compelling story with vibrant characters . . . I was fascinated' RACHEL HORE

    London, 1841.

    The Rajah sails for Australia.

    On board are 180 women convicted of petty crimes, sentenced to start a new life half way across the world.

    Daughters, sisters, mothers - they'll never see home or family again. Despised and damned, all they have now is each other.

    Until the murder.

    As the fearful hunt for a killer begins, everyone on board is a suspect.

    The investigation risks tearing their friendships apart . . .

    But if the killer isn't found, could it cost them their last chance of freedom?

    Based on a real-life voyage, Dangerous Women is a sweeping tale of confinement, hope and the terrible things we do to survive.

    'A fascinating prose patchwork of the women's lives, stitched together by a twisting murder mystery. Engrossing and deeply satisfying - over the course of the journey we learn about the desperate lives of these women, many guilty only of petty crimes' The Times

    'Hope Adams has skilfully patched a murder mystery into a historical event . . . Masterful plotting, well-drawn characters . . . an immensely satisfying read' Guardian

    'A fine story of suspense, sisterhood and society, reflecting the harshness of women's lives and their desperation to survive in a world that has scant regard for their wellbeing' Daily Mail

    'An intriguing murder-mystery, skilfully written and bursting with colour and life' Lucy Atkins, author of Magpie Lane

    'Dazzling. A captivating story filled with intrigue and dark secrets. An immensely satisfying tale of guilt, innocent and second chances' Emma Rous, author of The Au Pair

    'A fabulous, page-turning novel that kept me gripped. It's impossible not to become engaged with these women' Jane Harris, author of The Observations

    'This is a locked room mystery to end all locked room mysteries!' Sophie Bennett, author of The Windsor Knot

    This atmospheric narrative excels in its depiction of the relationship between female prisoners - largely petty criminals - and the tragic backstories that have brought them together' Mail on Sunday

  • Buy the book

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