The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies: A story to chill, thrill and warm the heart – book review –

Forced to flee Paris in 1923, Rosalie Delacroix escaped to the beautiful island of Malta to find work as a dancer at a bohemian night club... and a new life far from home.

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies
The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies

But the rebellious teenager also left behind her wealthy parents, her sister and some dark family secrets which, over twenty years later, will be at the heart of her niece’s desperate hunt for both Rosalie and the truth.

Well-known for her string of atmospheric and sensual historical novels set in some of the world’s most exotic 20th century colonial locations, master storyteller Dinah Jefferies sweeps us away to rural Devon and the evocative beauty of Malta in the second book of her thrilling Daughters of War trilogy.

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A moving, enthralling tale of grief, family, betrayal and courage, The Hidden Palace follows the turbulent journeys of two generations of women from the same family... both on the run from shocking revelations, and both searching for love and a place of safety.

In late August of 1944, 22-year-old Florence Baudin has left behind her home in the Dordogne region of Occupied France, and her two older sisters, Hélène and Élise, to escape the brutality of war and find sanctuary in England where her cold and remote French mother Claudette is living.

Florence made the dangerous trek across the Pyrenees with Jack, the English SOE agent who had been on operations in France and befriended the sisters, and she is now finding rest and calm at his cottage, Meadowbrook, tucked away in a small village in Devon.

Life for Florence has been uncertain and unsettling since she uncovered a secret that she knows she can never reveal, and which has changed her view of the world irrevocably. But her new-found calm is shattered when her estranged mother makes a desperate request... she wants Florence to find her vanished younger sister Rosalie who went missing from Paris in 1925 and to ‘put right what happened in the past.’

The only clues to the whereabouts of Rosalie – a wild and independent 19-year-old when she disappeared – is a Catholic rosary with a Maltese cross attached, and a short, faded note sent many years ago.

And so the quest begins to find out what happened to Rosalie, and to discover if she has survived the war years in Malta. The perilous journey in a world still at war takes Florence to the ancient honey-coloured walls of the tiny Mediterranean island where, in 1925, strangers could slip into the shadows and anyone could buy a new name.

It’s where Rosalie Delacroix – fleeing from a dark family secret and the prospect of a forced marriage – found the enchanting walled city of Valletta with its magnificent fort, grand harbour... and winding streets housing bohemian clubs which might just offer her the salvation of a dancer’s job.

But it’s also a place where war brings a deadly siege, relentless bombing and ruined lives, and with betrayals and secrets, lies and silence still hanging between Claudette and Rosalie, time is fast running out for Florence.

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The Hidden Palace is another epic and enchanting read, filled with the author’s special brand of powerful emotional intensity and vivid descriptions of people and their places, and all set against alluring and often dangerous landscapes.

Much of Jefferies’ work is informed by her own experiences and personal losses, and this tale of two strong and courageous women is guaranteed to ignite the senses and lure readers into their unfolding trials and tribulations in times of conflict and tumultuous change.

Underpinned by extensive research, and tingling with suspense, mystery and danger, this emotionally-charged story features exquisitely observed characters, rich period detail and the beautiful, descriptive writing that makes Jefferies’ immersive books such a joy to read.

From the peace and charms of a rural village in Devonshire to the deadly terrors and suffering of wartime Malta – an island of huge strategic importance which endured over three thousand air raids by German and Italian forces – The Hidden Palace is a rollercoaster ride through tragedy, long-buried secrets and the fight for freedom and truth.

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Exhilarating, often steeped in sadness, but always full of the bright light of hope, this is a story to chill, thrill and warm the heart. Next, and final, stop will be Night Train to Marrakech, due to arrive next year!

(HarperCollins, paperback, £8.99)