Prolific Joanna Trollope, descendent of equally prolific 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope, publishes romances in England under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey. Her U. S. popularity stems largely from Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of contemporary novels published under her own name, like The Choir and The Rector's Wife. Banking on name recognition to reach an American market already acquainted with Trollope, Viking plans to publish Harvey novels under the Trollope name, starting with The Brass Dolphin.
Trollope sets her tale of self-discovery on rocky, history-laden Malta. Its stony heights and its peculiar mixture of middle East and Europe, of ancient and modern cultures, intensify protagonist Lila Cunningham's internal conflicts about status, social class, and her own sense of place. A hand-forged door knocker in the form of a brass dolphin serves first as icon for the island of Malta, later as symbol for young LilaÔs discovery of her genuine self.
World War II, with its heavy Axis bombardment of this tiny English outpost, intensifies Lila's sense of isolation and self-pity. She despairs of realizing her dream of release from a life of poverty and dutiful care of a crippled father. Trollope, who was herself born during World War II, renders the fatigue and grief of wartime experience mingled with the stuff of high romance.
Dislocated by poverty from her dream of London ( because that's where things happen ), unhappily chained to an eccentric father she sees as worthless, Lila holds the Maltese world at arm's lengthÐdespite the attentions of a young Maltese nationalist, Alfonso Sabila. Then she goes to work for Count Julius of Tabia Palace in the Silent City, and meets his two handsome sons, Max and Anton. Trollope knows better than to leave a plot at the level of melodrama. Her characters have intricate inner lives. She permits them slow and organic unfolding. She has the gift of making readers like an unlikeable protagonist. She does her homework, rendering her fictional worlds real, based on responsible research. She creates convincing if inconclusive endings that feel like life. In The Brass Dolphin the war itself proves a testing ground for Lila. She must come to terms with her narrow resentments, her oblique snobbery toward Maltese peasants, her desire to retreat into a sheltered world of refinement. If Lila can finally hang the dolphin knocker at her front door, readers, too, should come to a keener understanding of painful modern issues of caste and class.
Joanne Lewis Sears profiles artists for the Montecito Journal in California and writes travel articles for Senior magazine.