Book Review: The Water Horse by Julia Gregson

Jess McGlynnOctober 10, 2014

The Water Horse by Julia Gregson

‘Catherine Carreg has been allowed to run wild, spending her childhood racing ponies along the beach in Wales with her friend Deio, the cattle-drover’s son.  But Catherine is consumed by a longing to escape the monotony of village life and runs away to London.’

This story is set during the Crimean War and is the story of Catherine Carreg, a young girl who finds her life in the Welsh countryside restrictive and who longs for adventure and to be free.  Catherine is present when her mother dies, and stands by helplessly, not knowing what to do and it is this tragedy and inspiration which comes from a local artist, that prompts her to run away to London.

There she finds work in Florence Nightingale’s ‘Home for Sick Governesses’ before responding to the call for nurses to go out to Scutari and help tend to injured soldiers.  Scutari and the hospital are nothing like she imagined; a literal living hell, and Catherine must learn to grow up quickly amongst the backdrop of love and war.

Alongside this, her long-time childhood friend Deio also becomes swept up in the heroic idea of war and must fight his own battles, and try to find his place in the world.

This book is set in a period of time which I haven’t read much about before and I was intrigued to discover more about Florence Nightingale.  It transpires, from Gregson’s point of view anyway, that she was nothing more than a glorified organiser and that she very rarely got involved in the medical side of things which surprised me. 

Gregson’s descriptions of the terrible devastation that the Crimean war brought not only to the beautiful country it took place in but to the lives of the men involved brought everything to life, although in some instances the way she describes the medical procedures left me feeling a bit dry-mouthed and horrified!  She had clearly done her research and I found these parts of the book very interesting to read.

I was also astounded at the stark differences between the conditions in the hospital for the soldiers and then those in positions of authority, such as Miss Nightingale who is always very cleanly and pristinely turned out.

Although it can’t be disputed that the premise for this story is a good idea, it just didn’t work for me.

I was frustrated by the pace of the storyline and the fact that Nightingale’s team of nurses were continually denied the opportunity to actually help the soldiers.  Although it is likely that this was actually the case I think that she could have moved the story on at a more brisk pace.  I felt as though I was living out the days with them in actual time at some points.

Catherine and Deio have a relationship which is supposed to build throughout the story; a ‘will they – won’t they’ type of scenario but I have to admit that I found their exchanges to be stilted and strange; often I didn’t have a clue what was going on.  Deio was not a particularly likeable character and there is one love-scene which definitely comes across badly when Deio forces himself upon Catherine.  After that I really struggled to see how they were in love with each other.  It was very odd.

On top of that, you reach the end the book having only had half of Deio’s story.  The book literally just ends without warning and I was really disappointed.  It was as though Gregson got a bit lost in where to take the story but having invested in reading about Deio I wanted to know what happened to him during the war, and was completely denied.  

Likewise there are several characters you come to know whose stories are never resolved.  If you are going to end a book in an abrupt manner, I think it is always nice to then have a detailed author’s note which provides more insight into how things turned out but again, there wasn’t anything.

I would give this book 3 stars.  I really enjoyed Gregson’s other book, East of the Sun but this story just doesn’t match up.  There is a lot of potential here, and maybe it will grip other readers but it just didn’t gel with me.  Perhaps if it had finished better I would have forgiven the other parts but an unresolved ending is just a huge no-no.


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