For about the first half of this novel, I was tremendously impressed and moved by it. Whatever it takes to communicate what feels like an authentic, rather than contrived, sense of history (see previous posts on historical fiction), Soueif has; she makes both Lady Anna’s past experience and the experience and perspective of Isabel and Amal in the (more or less) present seem alive, real. Isabel’s exploration, while running a nice parallel to Anna’s, turns out to be less important than Amal’s; while Isabel is in her own way experiencing the exotic world of others, Amal is taking another look at her own world, in the illumination provided by her experience of Westerners, from her husband to Isabel and Anna. Soueif seemed especially good, to me, at showing the complexities of identity, the impossibility of pointing in any one direction and saying, “look, there, that is (or he or she is) truly Egyptian.” But at the same time I felt the novel yearned for an idea of Eygpt, an idea of an Egyptian identity, that could endure the cataclysms as well as the slower erosions of history, cross-cultural conflict and change, and just time. Like Scott, Soueif avoids nostalgia, but in her landscapes especially there was a hint of something like it.
The two historical stories are interwoven artfully in ways that keep the reader thinking about relationships and continuities. Is Isabel looking for the same thing that Anna is? Anna looks for something like redemption, for her nation’s sins including those committed, however unhappily, by her first husband; she looks for freedom from rules about who she can be; she looks (of course, this being a novel) for love. Isabel starts with love, with Omar, but how are we to read her being struck so fast with feeling for him? She goes to Egypt in part to understand “where he’s coming from,” as the saying goes, but in this case, literally, as if knowing his homeland will tell her his character–which, it seems, it does, because his sympathies and loyalties, his politics, are the result of his history and the history of the Middle East. One of Soueif’s goals is clearly to educate her Western readers about international politics from a non-Western point of view, especially about the effects of colonialism in the early story, and the conflict over Palestine in the contemporary one. In the way novelists are often credited with, she puts human faces on what too easily become abstractions, such as redrawn borders. She also to some extent allows for the humanity on more than one side of controversies, showing up the inadequacy of single-minded advocacy on any one side.
By the end of the novel, though, I didn’t think she was able to sustain the weight of the political and historical detail she included: the story began to suffer as conversations or descriptions of gatherings required long lists of names and allegiances, factions and parties (always unnatural, as in ordinary conversation we don’t have to explain who everyone is). Sections seemed more like textbooks, and the momentum of the plot suffered. I also thought she did not use Anna well enough. Here she gave us an Englishwoman unconventional enough to ride across the Sinai dressed as an Arab man, whose very feistiness is part of what draws Sharif to her. But once she’s married, she accepts entirely the life of an Egyptian wife, including a degree of segregation and dependence that would surely have galled even a more conservative Englishwoman of the early 1900s. Her one ‘rebellion’ is by mistake, when she withdraws her own money from the bank only to learn she has thereby shamed Sharif by implying he does not provide for her. Rather than resisting this implication as a misrepresentation of the facts, she apologizes abjectly. How much more interesting if she had continued to defy expectations and tested the compatibility of her “English” values with the tolerance of her new Egyptian family, especially as the intolerance of the English community for her is shown to be complete. Would her new kin have loved her so easily if she had not adopted their values and customs? It’s true that Soueif is at pains to depict life in the haramlek as having its own kind of freedom, dignity, and beauty, and that Anna and Sharif become collaborators in the reports they send back to England. But Anna’s rapid embrace of all things Egyptian seemed like a lost opportunity to me, and her story became fairly boring, until the melodrama of Sharif’s violent death (leaving the killer’s identity ambiguous was a nice touch that allowed, again, for the multiple complexities of politics and allegiances). Amal’s struggle to negotiate the violent realities of contemporary Egypt held more dramatic interest and was movingly rendered. What are we to assume has happened to Omar at the end?