Jasmine Nights

A Novel

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About The Book

From the award-winning author of East of the Sun, a powerful love story set against the unstable and exotic cities of Cairo and Istanbul during the height of World War II.

At twenty-three, Saba Tarcan knows her only hope of escaping the clamor of Cardiff Bay, Wales, lies in her voice. While traveling Britain, singing for wounded soldiers, Saba meets handsome fighter pilot Dom Benson, recovering from burns after a crash. When Saba auditions to entertain troops in far-off lands, Dom follows her to London. Just as their relationship begins to take root, Saba is sent to sing in Africa, and Dom is assigned a new mission in the Middle East. As Saba explores Cairo’s bazaars, finding friendship among the troupe’s acrobats and dancers, Dom returns to the cockpit once again, both thrilled and terrified to be flying above the desert floor. In spite of great danger, the two resolve to reunite.

When Saba learns that her position makes her uniquely qualified for a secret mission of international importance, she agrees to help the British Secret Service, concealing her role from Dom. Her decision will jeopardize not only her safety but also the love of her life.

Based on true accounts of female entertainers used as spies during World War II, Jasmine Nights is a powerful story of danger, secrets, and love, filled with the colors and sounds of the Middle East’s most beautiful cities.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, 1942

It was only a song. That was what he thought when she’d put her hat on and gone, leaving the faint smell of fresh apples behind. Nothing but a song; a pretty girl.

But the very least he could say about the best thing to have happened to him in a long time was that she’d stopped him having the dreams.

In the first, he was at the end of a parachute with about three and a half miles between the soles of his feet and the Suffolk countryside. He was screaming because he couldn’t land. He was rushing through the air, a light, insubstantial thing, like thistledown or a dead moth. The bright green grass, so familiar and so dear, swooped toward him, only to jerk away again. Sometimes a woman stood and gaped at him, waving as he floated down, and then was gone on a gust of wind.

In the second dream, he was in his Spitfire again. Jacko’s aircraft was alongside him. At first it felt good up there in the cold, clear sunlight, but then, in a moment of nauseous panic, it felt as if his eyelids had been sewn together, and he could not see.

He told no one. He was one of the lucky ones—about to go home after four months here. There were plenty worse off than him in this place of dark corridors and stifled screams. Every day he heard the rumble of ambulances with new burn victims, picked up from shattered aircraft up and down the east coast.

The ward, an overspill from the hospital, was housed in a long, narrow hut with twenty beds on either side of it, and in the middle a potbellied stove, a table, and a piano with two brass candlesticks arranged festively on top.

The ward smelled of soiled dressings, of bedpans, of dying and living flesh: old men’s smells, although most of the fighter pilots in here were in their early twenties. Stourton, at the end of the ward, who had been flying Hurricanes from North Weald, had been a blind man for two weeks now. His girlfriend came in every day to teach him Braille. Squeak Townsend, the red-faced boy in the next bed with the hearty, unconvincing laugh, was a fighter pilot who’d broken his spine when his parachute had failed, and who’d confessed to Dom a few days ago that he was too nervous to ever want to fly again.

Dom knew he was lucky. He’d been flying a Spitfire at twenty thousand feet over a patchwork of fields when his cockpit was transformed into a blowtorch by the explosion of the petrol tank that sat in front of his instrument panel. His hands and face were burned—typical fighter-pilot injuries, the surgeon said—and in the excruciating moments between the flames and the ground, he’d opened the plane’s canopy, fumbled for the bright green tag that opened his parachute, swooned through space for what felt like an eternity, and finally landed, babbling and screaming, on top of a farmer’s haystack on the Suffolk coast.

Last week, Dr. Kilverton, the jaunty new plastic surgeon who now traveled from hospital to hospital, had come to the Queen Victoria and examined the burn on the right side of his face.

“Beautiful.” Kilverton’s bloodshot eye had peered through a microscope at the point where the new skin graft taken from Dom’s buttock had been patchworked over his burns. “That’ll take about six or seven weeks to heal; then you should be fully operational. Good skin,” he added. “Mediterranean?”

“My mother,” Dom explained through clenched teeth. Kilverton was peeling off old skin at the time, probing the graft. “French.”

“Your father?”

Dom wanted him to shut up. It was easier to go inside the pain and not do the cocktail-party stuff.

“British.”

“Where did you learn to fly? Tilt your head this way, please.” The snub nose loomed toward him.

“Cambridge. The University Air Squadron.”

“Ah, my father was there, too; sounded like jolly good fun.”

“Yes.”

Kilverton talked some more about corpuscles and muscle tone and youth still being on his side; he’d repeated how lucky Dom was. “Soon have your old face and your old smile back,” as if a smile was a plastered-on thing.

While he was listening, Dom had that nightmare sensation again of floating above himself, of seeing kind faces below and not being able to reach them. Since the accident, a new person had taken up residence inside the old face, and the old smile. A put-together self who smoked and ate, who joked and was still capable of cynical wisecracks, but who felt essentially dead. Last week, encouraged by the doctors to take his first spin on his motorbike, he’d sat on a grass verge outside the Mucky Duck, on what was supposed to be a red-letter day, and looked at his hand around the beer glass as if it belonged to someone else.

During his first weeks in hospital, now a blur of drips and ambulance rides and acid baths, his sole aim in life had been to not let the side down by blubbing or screaming. Blind at first, he’d managed to quip, “Are you pretty?” to the nurse who’d sat with him in the ambulance that took him away from the smoldering haystack.

Later, in the wards, he made a bargain with himself: he would not deny the physical pain, which was constant, searing, and so bad at times it was almost funny, but emotionally he would own up to nothing. If anyone asked him how he was, he was fine.

It was only in the relative quiet of the night, in the lucid moments when he emerged from the morphine haze, that he thought about the nature of pain. What was it for? How was one to deal with it? Why had he been saved and the others were gone?

And only months later, when his hands had sufficiently healed, had he started to write in the diary his mother had sent him. Reams of stuff about Jacko and Cowbridge, both killed that day. A letter to Jacko’s fiancée, Jill, not sent. Letters to his own parents, ditto, warning them that when he was better, he was determined to fly again.

And then the girl.

When she walked into the ward that night, what struck him most was how young she looked: young and spirited and hopeful. From his bed, he drank in every detail of her.

She was wearing a red polka-dot dress, nipped in at the waist, and a black hat with an absurd little veil that was too old for her and made her look a little like a four-year-old who had raided her mother’s dressing-up box. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two.

He saw a roll of glossy dark hair under her hat. Generous lips, large brown eyes.

She stood next to the piano, close to the trolley that held dressings and rolled bandages. Half imp, half angel. She was smiling as if this was where she wanted to be. A real professional, he thought, trying to keep a cynical distance. A pro.

She explained in her lightly accented voice—Welsh? Italian? Hard to say—that her name was Saba Tarcan, and that she was a last-minute replacement for a torch singer called Janice Sophia. She hoped they wouldn’t be disappointed, and then threw a bold look in Dom’s direction—or so he imagined—as if to say you won’t be.

A fat man in khaki uniform, her accompanist, sat down heavily at the piano, began to play. She listened, swaying slightly; a look of calm settled on her face as she sang about deep purple nights, and flickering stars, and a girl breathing a boy’s name while she sighed.

He’d tried every trick in his book to keep her at arm’s length, but the song came out of the darkness like a wild thing, and her voice was so husky, so sad, and it had been such a long time since he’d desired a woman, that the relief was overwhelming. Through the mist of a memory you wander back to me. So much to conceal now: his fear of being ugly, his shame that he was alive with the others gone. And then he’d felt a wild desire to laugh, for “Deep Purple” was perhaps not the most tactful of songs to sing: many of the men in the ward had purple faces, Gentian violet being the thing they painted over the burn victims after they’d been bathed in tannic acid.

Halfway through the song, she’d looked startled, as if realizing her mistake, but she’d kept on singing, and said nothing by way of apology at the end of it. He approved of that: the last thing any of them needed was sympathy and special songs.

When she’d finished, Dom saw that beads of perspiration had formed on her upper lip and rings of sweat around the arms of her dress. The ward was kept stiflingly hot.

When she sang “I’m in the Mood for Love,” Curtis, ignorant bastard, called out: “Well, you know where to look, my lovely.”

Dom frowned. Saba Tarcan: he said the name to himself.

“Two more songs,” said Staff Nurse Morrison, tapping her watch. “And then it’s night-night time.”

And he was relieved—it was too much. Like eating a ten-course meal after starving for a year.

But Saba Tarcan paid no attention to the big fat nurse, and this he approved of, too. She took off her hat and laid it on the piano, as if to say I shall stay until I’ve finished. She pushed back a tendril of hair from her flushed cheek, talked briefly to the pianist, and took Dom to the edge of what was bearable, as she began to sing, “They Didn’t Believe Me.” The song Annabel had loved, singing it softly to him as they walked one night hand in hand beside the Cam, in the days when he felt he had everything: flying, Cambridge, her, other girls, too. As the tears dashed through the purple dye, he turned his head away, furious and ashamed.

Annabel was considered a catch: a tall, pale, ethereal girl with long, curly fair hair, a sweet smile, and clever parents: her father a High Court judge, her mother a don. She’d come to see him religiously at first, forehead gleaming in the stifling ward, reading to him with nervous glances around her at some of the other freaks.

“I can’t do this, Dom, I’m not strong enough,” she’d said after two weeks. “It’s not you.” She’d swallowed.

“I’m starting to dread it.” She’d glanced at the boy in the bed beside him. The side of his face, grafted with his own skin to his chest, looked like a badly made elephant’s trunk.

“So sorry,” she’d whispered softly, shortly before she left. Her round blue eyes had filled with tears. “Can we stay friends?”

Not the first woman to have bolted out of this terrifying ward, not the last.

“Amazing how potent cheap music is”: the kind of thing he might have said once to excuse the tears. His Noël Coward imitation had been rather admired at Cambridge. It wasn’t even Annabel so much; it was everything lost, even the foolishly innocent things—perhaps particularly them.

His set, the self-proclaimed “it” boys of their year, had spent days spragged out on sofas, smoking and drinking cheap sherry, elaborately bored and showing off wildly about Charlie Parker, or Pound, or Eliot—anything that amused them. How young they seemed, even at this distance. The first heady days away from home, the steady stream of good-looking undergraduate girls smuggled into their rooms, and they’d had their pick. He’d tried to be fair to Annabel, telling her after her tearful confession that he perfectly understood, didn’t blame her in the slightest, in truth he’d always had the guilty sense that his ardor did not equal hers, that she was not, as people said, “the one.” There’d been so many other girls around, and Cambridge felt like a time when the sun would never stop shining.

Smetheren, whose famously untidy room was opposite his on the quad, had been killed two months ago. Clancy, one of his best friends, also a flying fanatic and among the cleverest men he’d ever met, shot down over France a month before his twenty-second birthday. And Jacko, of course. All changed within a year, and the boy he’d been could never have imagined himself like this: in bed at eight thirty in his pjs, desperately trying not to cry in front of a pretty girl. It was nothing but notes. He bit the inside of his lip to gain control: notes and a few minor chords, some well-chosen words. Only a song.

A clink of bottles, a rumble of wheels. The night medicines were coming around on a trolley. They were stoking up the boiler in the middle of the room, dimming the lights.

“Last one,” she said.

She was wearing her ridiculous little veiled hat again. The pianist had put away his music, so she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” unaccompanied, her voice strong and clear, her expression intent and focused.

And then she’d walked around the beds to say good night.

Good night to Williams, who had both legs in traction, and to poor blind Billy at the end of the ward, and to Farthingale, who was off to theater tomorrow to have his eyelids sewn back on again. She didn’t seem to mind them, or was that part of the training?

When she got to Dom, Curtis, the bloody idiot, called out: “Go on, love! Give him a night-night kiss.” He’d turned his head away, but she’d leaned toward him, so close he could see the mound of her stomach under the red and white dress. He felt the tickle of her hair. She smelled young and fresh, like apples.

When she kissed his cheek, he’d said to protect himself, “You wouldn’t kiss that if you knew where it came from,” and she’d leaned down again and whispered in his ear, “How do you know that, you silly bugger?”

He’d stayed awake for the next hour thinking about her, his heart in a sort of delighted suspension. Before he went to sleep, he imagined her on the back of his motorbike. It was a summer’s day. They were sitting on a grass verge outside a country inn. They were teasing each other, they were laughing. She was wearing a blue dress, and the sky was just a sky again, not something you fell from screaming.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Jasmine Nights includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Saba Tarcan is a talented but naïve young singer stuck in Tiger Bay in Cardiff, while World War II rages on around her. So when she is offered a position with Entertainments National Service Association’s traveling group to sing for the troops behind enemy lines, she jumps at the chance. She leaves her overprotective family and a budding romance with Dom—a young fighter pilot she met in a hospital where he was recovering from a near-fatal crash—behind. 

But Saba is never far from Dom’s mind. When he is transferred to the Desert Air Force, the two are reunited. Yet starting where they left off proves difficult: Saba has been recruited to spy on the Nazi elite, while Dom is flying increasingly treacherous missions. Set in the most exquisite cities of the Middle East during one of the most dangerous eras of world history, Jasmine Nights is a story of intrigue, heart-pounding encounters, and ultimately of the sacrifices made for love.

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. When Dom first watches Saba perform at Queen Victoria Hospital, he sees her as “half imp, half angel.” (p. 12) Do you agree with Dom’s description? Do you think Saba truly has a dual nature? How is she different from the other women Dom has encountered before? Why is she different? 

2. After he is shot down, Dom realizes how lucky he was to survive the crash. Why does Dom feel guilty about surviving? How does the crash change Dom? 

3. Compare Saba’s love for singing to Dom’s passion for flying. How do Saba and Dom feel similarly about these passions? How do they feel differently? When do they bond over their separate callings and when do their careers cause a rift in their relationship? 

4. Discuss the theme of working women in Jasmine Nights. How has the war changed the lives of Saba, Arleta, and Mrs. Tarcan? How do their fathers, husbands, and boyfriends react to their new professions brought on by the war?

5. Consider the introductions of key characters like Arleta (p. 56) and Dermot Cleeve (p. 111), as well as key events, the first time Saba sang in front of Ozan and the first dinner Saba and Dom shared (p. 215). Do you find any similarities in these descriptions? How does the jasmine flower weave its way into the narrative of the novel? 

6. Compare where Dom and Saba came from and the kind of households they grew up in. What do Saba and Dom learn about marriage from their parents? What regrets do Saba and Dom’s mothers hold? How do Saba and Dom try to live and love differently than their parents? 
 
7. Reread Saba’s letters to her father on pages 53, 126, and 195. Why do you think Saba’s father reacted so harshly to her leaving? What was his motivation? Is it pride? Control? Jealousy? Do you think they ever reconcile? Why or why not? Consider what Mr. Ozan’s wife, Leyla, tells Saba on page 369 in your response. 

8. “Arleta was everything your mother had warned you never to be, the perfect mixture of damage and glamour, and men adored her for it.” (p. 146) Consider Arleta and Saba’s friendship. Why are they so drawn to each other? Were you surprised when you learned that Arleta had a son?  
 
9. When Max Bagley hears Saba sing, he says, “But the problem for me is I’m not getting you. Not yet.” (p. 168) Discuss how Saba’s singing and performances change over the course of Jasmine Nights. How does she react to Bagley’s criticism? What does she learn from her lessons with Faiza? 

10. Dom’s mother warns her son about Saba: “If she’s like that, her life will be as important as yours. You will have to understand this and it will be very, very hard for you.” (p. 187) Do you think Dom’s mother sees something of her former self in Saba? Why or why not?

11. As Dom falls in love with Saba, he realizes: “With her, he would have to fly blind.” (p. 187) How much does Dom know about Saba at the beginning of their relationship? What leaps of faith must he take in order to be with her? What sacrifices?

12. Saba sings in a number of settings—from gloomy hospitals to smoky back rooms to outdoor pavilions. Which of Saba’s performances was most memorable? Why? 
 
13. “Part of her knew she wasn’t a natural spy.” (p. 371). In what ways is Saba a “natural spy”? When do her espionage skills falter? What are the costs of her decision to spy for her country? 
 
14. “In certain lights, Severin’s ascetic face looked both innocent and lost…It was confusing to know that if he hadn’t been German she would definitely have talked to him, had fun with him; become, at the very least, friends.” (p. 410) What are your reactions to this passage after knowing what transpires later in that night and between Severin and Saba? 
 
15. After being rescued by a traveling tribe of goat herders, Dom reflects: “He already felt ashamed of the man he’d been who’d first come to North Africa…who’d looked at people like these from the air, and seen tiny toy-like figures moving their animals around. They’d given up their land for foreign soldiers to fight in and he’d barely spared them a thought.” (p. 484). Did this passage make you think differently about Dom’s character? About the war? Compare the description of Ozan’s house on page 276 to the description of life among the nomads. What does the war mean to Ozan? To Dom? To Karim and his family? 
                                                                                                                               16. Consider the role jealousy plays in Saba and Dom’s relationship. How does Saba react when she sees Dom talking to Jacko’s former girlfriend on their first date? How does Dom handle his feelings of envy when he sees Saba perform for the troops? 
 
17. Dom and Saba keep secrets from each other—Dom never tells her how Jacko died and Saba never discusses what happened with Severin. Why do they keep these silences from each other? Would sharing these secrets draw them closer together or further apart?

Enhance Your Book Club 

1. Create a playlist for your book club discussion inspired by Jasmine Nights. Download or stream some of the songs that Saba sings in the book, like: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “My Funny Valentine,” “All the Things You Are,” “Get Happy,” “Strange Fruit,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.”
 
2. Listen to an NPR radio segment about Umm Kulthum, titled “‘The Lady of’ Cairo” that features audio and video clips of the legendary singer’s performances with your book club at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124612595.  
 
3. Set the scene for your meeting with the smell of jasmine and by cooking Middle Eastern snacks. Serve pita triangles with any of these simple mezze or small dishes: www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/24/foodanddrink.features3. If fresh jasmine is not available, light a jasmine-scented candle to summon the mood of the Middle East. 
 
4. Take a virtual tour of Alexandria, the “Pearl of the Mediterranean.” Take in the the city’s sites and learn about its incredible history here: www.egypt.travel/city/index/alexandria
 

A Conversation with Julia Gregson 

Readers can sense the depth of research that went into Jasmine Nights—from the setting to the songs Saba so passionately sang. How did you gain so much knowledge about the history and culture of the Middle East? Did you visit any of the cities described in Jasmine Nights

One of the deep pleasures of writing a book like this is the research trips. I’d been to Turkey before, to research my first book, Band of Angels, but this time I travelled on my own. First stop was Istanbul, a fabulous city.  I stayed in the oldest hotel I could find—a beautiful old wooden Ottoman building not far from the Bosphorus. I found a guide who knew the city well; most helpful of all, I made friends with a well-known Turkish singer, Sema, who sings many of the famous songs of the forties. She took me to a Russian restaurant where over dinner she explained the complexities of being a female singer in Turkey and the Middle East. I went to her concerts.  On other days, I wandered around alone, discovering the shores of the Bosphorus, or poking around alleyways looking at shops, markets, people, all senses on red alert, which is why I love this kind of travel, you are looking not just for information, but for smells, sights, feelings.

I took a second trip to Egypt, to Cairo, and then a boat trip up the Nile on a thirties paddle steamer, one of the loveliest experiences of my life. 

Further back, Jasmine Nights came from the two years I spent as a teenager in the Middle East, on the island of Cyprus. My father, who was in the Air Force, was posted there.  It was in Cyprus—I’ve only just thought of this—I kissed my first boy in a garden full of the scents jasmine. Going back to a freezing boarding school in England was always a dreadful shock to the system. My friends say that the “research trips” they always put in inverted commas are simply excuses for a damn good holiday, but they are essentially teasing me. You have to feel, smell and see the places you are writing about.

Was it common for entertainers to serve as spies during World War II? Did you come across any true stories of espionage that inspired Saba’s story? 

Female entertainers were an essential part of espionage for both the Germans and the Allies. Josephine Baker was perhaps the most famous. Apart from being the first African American to star in a major motion picture, she worked during World War II as an unofficial spy. She had moved to France, was married to a Jew, and was regarded by the French Resistance as extremely useful—she could travel widely, and mingle without comment with high society in both France and North Africa.

In Cairo, Hekmet Fahmy, a famous belly dancer, was a spy. Her glamorous houseboat on the Nile was the scene of many parties, where she used her charms to extract secrets from the English and pass them on to the Germans. 

The Syrian Druze singer, Asmahan, was said to have done vital espionage work for the British. Her job was to inform her people that the Free French and the British would be invading Syria through their territory and to persuade them not to fight. In return, the British and the Free French promised the independence of Syria and Lebanon on the day of the invasion.

The famous British explorer and travel writer, Freya Stark, was also fluent in Arabic, and a fixture of the Cairo social scene. She joined the Ministry of Information, and created an important propaganda network, which aimed to persuade Arabs to either remain neutral or support the Allies. 

Saba, Arleta, and the other female characters find new, professional opportunities during the war. Do you see similarities between women’s careers during World War II and the working women of today? 

The big difference is that during the war women were allowed to work, today we expect to. During WWII, my own mother joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and worked at Fighter Command, a job she found both liberating and frightening. To be suddenly allowed the kind of freedom and expanded horizons we now take for granted took a lot of women by surprise. The genie was out of the bottle. After the war it shocked many women to realize that this period of their lives was over. Full stop. Their life’s work now was to be in the house or raising children.

The magic of wartime music comes alive in Jasmine Nights. Did you find it challenging to depict the sounds and emotions of music in words? Did you listen to any particular songs while writing? 

I listened to all kinds of music while writing Jasmine Nights. Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, Umm Kulthum, Sema, Vera Lynne, Asmahan. The particular songs that will stay with me are “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Deep Purple,” also, Sema’s album of Turkish favorites, Ekho, which I heard in Istanbul. 

What inspired you to write about the wartime heroics of the Desert Air Force? Did you learn about the pilots and planes of World War II?

My late father was a Battle of Britain pilot. Before he was 23 years old, he’d been shot down three times. The last time, he hung burning in a tree for 20 minutes before he was rescued and taken to hospital where he stayed for a year. He rarely talked about his experiences, and I regret not asking him more. Dom is not my father, but parts of this book are quite definitely attempts to talk to my Pa from beyond the grave if that makes any sense! I always feel if he’d had a son he would have made a better job of it, or at least asked him more. Dilip Sarkar, an aviation historian, helped with the intricacies of airplanes, slang, uniforms squadrons and so on. 

A chapter set in Saba and Dom’s room in Alexandria begins: “There are rooms you know you won’t forget; they are like songs that are part of you.” (p. 304) Are there rooms and songs that feel like part of your own identity? 

There’s nothing like “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” to make me feel eight years old again. “Moon River” returns me to a balcony overlooking the sea—my first party in Cyprus—the kiss, the Jasmine blossom came later. Otis Redding’s “My Girl”—the soundtrack for my first love. Tom Jones, “It’s Not Unusual”—don’t get me started. What about the songs you played obsessively when you broke up: Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” Bob Dylan’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

Rooms: a sunlit bedroom in Australia. A loft in New York with a resident mouse from the bakery next door. My kitchen now in Wales—oh, one could go on and on—it’s a surprisingly revealing question.

East of the Sun, your second novel is set in India, while Jasmine Nights spans much of the Middle Eastern region. How was the experience of writing these two settings different? How was it similar? 

India is overwhelming in every way: its poverty, its richness, and its exuberant friendliness. The first time I went, for safety and for fun, with my husband and daughter.  We went to Rajasthan and then took the tiny single-track train up to Simla where the last scenes of East of the Sun were set. The second time I deliberately went on my own to Mumbai in order to try and feel an echo of the terror my girls would feel at being adrift in such a chaotic foreign seeming city. The surprise was how friendly and warm the people were:  by day two, I happily went out to eat on my own after dark, but I also, at times, felt frightened and foreign and out of my depth. It’s a country that asks a lot of you.

By contrast Turkey, even Cairo, felt more familiar to me, possibly because I’d been there as a child.

You have worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent. Were you as excited and awed by foreign travel as your character Saba when you first began traveling? Can you share a favorite memory from your travels abroad?

As an Air Force brat, we traveled from an early age constantly—good preparation for my later life as a foreign correspondent. My job in New York led to some unusual experiences: a week with Muhammad Ali in his training camp; an interview with the Great Train robber, Ronnie Biggs, in his prison cell in Brasilia; orphanages in Vietnam; homes for raped women in Bangladesh, but my favorite memory comes from a holiday I took with my husband in Morocco.

We were staying at a hotel on the edge of a walled town called, Taroudant. The hotel was lovely, but it felt isolated and insulated. Inside the city walls were bazaars and spicy alleyways, jugglers, and beggars.

I was walking into town alone one day when our maid stopped me. She told me she was going to the Hamman, the traditional ladies bath in the centre of town. She asked if I’d like to join her. My first flash was no way! What if I were robbed, or caught Moroccan ferukas? What would my husband say?

Half an hour later, I was stripped to my underwear and sitting in a gorgeous, scruffy high ceilinged room at the end of a long alleyway. About 50 Moroccan women sat with me, gossiping, washing themselves, their children’s hair, my hair. It was like a veil being drawn back on another life and I learned so much in that brief hour. One girl, who had worked as a nanny in London told me how much she pitied her Western boss: always so busy, no time for fun or relaxation, no aunties in the house. Another asked me if I’d like to do some break dancing afterwards to Michael Jackson! Another woman cried as she told me she’d recently lost her husband. The whole experience was so interesting, so real, so unexpectedly exhilarating. That night my husband and I went back to the girl’s house and met all her family. For me, I long for that moment in each country I go to, that moment when you think, ah! This is what it’s like.

Jasmine Nights does not have a typical happy ending—Saba and Dom quarrel about their respective professions up to the last chapter. Why did you keep these lovers in conflict to the very end?

I wanted to keep it real and not wrap it all up in a conventional saccharine ending. It was terribly hard for most people after the war to carry on being the person they were before it. My own parents struggled with this: a sense of real anti-climax: they were so poor, they hardly knew each other, and England was in the grips of rationing until way into the 1950s. 

Also, I didn’t want Dom and Saba to settle too quickly for domesticity. They knew they were soul mates, that they were destined for each other, but both were unconventional too, and crucially had found work they were passionate about. Theirs was never going to be a stereotypical love story, and I wanted the ending to reflect this.

What are you working on now? Have you found another exotic setting for your next novel? 

I’m working on another novel set in India, and the Far East. It’s set in 1947, shortly before Independence. Its principal character is a mixed race girl, and though it’s not a sequel to East of the Sun, some of the same characters appear.

About The Author

Alex Pownall

Julia Gregson has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the UK, Australia, and the US. She is the author of East of the Sun, which was a major bestseller in the UK and won the Romantic Novel of the Year Prize and the Le Prince Maurice Prize there, and Monsoon Summer. Her short stories have been published in collections and magazines and read on the radio. She lives in Monmouthshire, Wales.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (June 2012)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439155585

Raves and Reviews

“Julia Gregson's Jasmine Nights has all the makings of the perfect beach read: adventure, danger, international locale, historical sweep, steamy romance…utterly delicious.”

– Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Gregson, the author of East of the Sun and Band of Angels, brings a wealth of detail to this unconventional love story, ranging from World War II history to rich cultural lore to the pop-music standards of the era. With numerous and well-drawn characters, evocative prose and a commanding story, the former journalist and foreign correspondent again proves that she is also a master of historical fiction. And smoke might not be the only thing that gets in your eyes in this moving novel.”

– Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Gregson shines in her descriptions of the life of the rich, poor and combatant in Cairo and Alexandria, the sights of Giza and the Bosphorus, and the chaotic World War II milieu where women no longer tolerated 'boys making all the rules.' Saba and Dom love, face perils, triumph and intermittently reunite….the story flows at a stately pace to a conclusion both satisfying and open-ended. Fans will want a sequel.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“An exciting, richly presented novel of mystery and romance…Historically accurate, beautifully written, Jasmine Nights is a terrific story with unforgettable characters set in a dangerous, but exciting time.”

– Romance Reviews Today

“For a history lesson on WWII, watch Ken Burns’ The War. For romance and intrigue, with the conflict providing the perfect excuse to set a story in exotic locales like Cairo, Gregson (East of the Sun, 2009) delivers in spades… Credit is due Gregson…for crafting a story about a much-chronicled war that feels thoroughly original.”

– Booklist

“This steamy, sweeping historical draws readers into the seductive world of WWII Egypt…Gregson’s latest (after Band of Angels) displays the author’s command of wartime fiction. Saba is a modern woman struggling with old-fashioned ideas and Dom is a surprisingly complex hero. Seen through their eyes, the wartime Middle East is a heady, intoxicating place and readers will be swept away by the lush prose.”

– Publishers Weekly

“A wonderful romance and adventure story about two passionate young people determined to live life to the fullest, knowing they may not live to see tomorrow… The contrast of the glamorous, exotic setting with the gritty reality of life in a war zone was compelling and made for a great read. Not to be missed.”--Historical Novel Society

“A wonderful romance and adventure story about two passionate young people determined to live life to the fullest, knowing they may not live to see tomorrow… The contrast of the glamorous, exotic setting with the gritty reality of life in a war zone was compelling and made for a great read. Not to be missed.”--Historical Novel Society

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