The Mistress of Nothing won this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. I haven’t read any of the other contenders, but if The Mistress of Nothing is really the best of the bunch, I shouldn’t bother, because it is a pretty mediocre novel.* I love the idea of it, which is why I ordered it even before the GG results were announced; it’s just bad luck (mine and Pullinger’s both–not that she has any stake in what I thought of her book) that I reread Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love not long ago and it does so many similar things with so much more richness, and then so much more besides.
The Mistress of Nothing tells the story of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon’s maid Sally Naldrett, who on a trip to Egypt with her mistress in the 1860s falls in love with their Egyptian dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh. Pullinger sets up Sally’s predisposition to love all things Egyptian by making her a regular visitor to the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery:
I have my favourite . The first time I saw his shapely long face I thought he was a woman. But no, he’s a man, a colossal Pharaoh. Almond eyes, kohl-rimmed like a cat’s; I would run my hand along his cheek if I could reach that high, over his lips, down to his great chin, feeling the stone bones beneath the smooth cool stone skin. I stare at him, and he stares back at me. I laugh at myself: he’s the man of my dreams.
You can probably predict how this fantasy plays out, but in case you can’t, here’s Sally’s first impression of Omar:
He was a bit younger than me, perhaps in his mid-twenties, though it’s hard to tell. He was slender – all Egyptian men are slender, except when they are prosperous and very fat. He was neatly dressed, his clothes well cared for and tidy. Like most Egyptians he was clean-shaven and his skin was exceptionally smooth-looking. He reminded me of someone and this feeling nagged at me until I remembered: the man I used to visit in the Museum. My stone Pharaoh. I felt hot suddenly, and my throat tightened, and my heart skipped a beat.
“Man of my dreams”? “my heart skipped a beat”? This is award-winning literary language? Throughout the novel, in fact, the prose is uneven, with nicely evocative moments undermined (as the description of the stone Pharaoh is) by wooden exclamations insisting too hard on the obvious, forcing emotional intensity where it should arise from the situation, as here when Omar reveals to Sally Lady Duff Gordon’s sentence on Sally for having Omar’s child:
‘Abdullah must go to my wife Mabrouka in Cairo and you must return to England.’
In that moment, my life was ruined. With her words, relayed to me by my lover, I was destroyed.
Or, again here:
My Lady did her utmost to make sure my marriage day was as penitential and joyless as possible, but she did not succeed. My heart flew that day, and uncontainable joy bubbled up insde me. Truth be told, I could not have cared less about the ceremony and its trappings, Egyptian or English. Omar and I were married!
This kind of naivete would be tolerable if it were Sally’s alone, and we had reason to feel the novel as a whole distancing itself from her, but there are no traces of skepticism about this voice except insofar as Sally eventually discovers herself to have been deceived about the extent of Omar’s love and loyalty. Sally continues to narrate in the same wooden way right to the end (“As I made my way through the streets, I felt him behind me and all the warnings I had ever had about being alone in a city at night rushed up to overtake me”).
And yet what I wanted from Pullinger was not less prose, but more (if also better). The novel is desperately thin on context and character development and thus on motivation–which becomes a fatal flaw at the novel’s turning point, Lady Duff Gordon’s complete rejection of Sally after the exposure of her relationship with Omar. This development is totally unprepared for. Well, to be fair, we are prepared for it by both the jacket blurb and the first chapter, which begins, “The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human. . . . When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her” (and so on for a whole paragraph). But as this rejection is the pivot on which not just the plot turns but also the whole idea of the book (according to the GG site, “realizations about the nature of power – its seductiveness, its elusiveness and its ability to alter the soul in manifold ways”), we need to feel it as something profoundly meaningful, revelatory even. Sally’s relationship with her mistress is clearly intended as one that (temporarily) transcends conventional class boundaries, but we have not experienced their bond as something extraordinary enough or deep enough that Lady Duff Gordon’s reversion to strident authoritarianism and prudery feels anything but arbitrary, necessitated by the facts of the case but not by the accumulated pressures of the novel. Why should she turn on Sally so abruptly and completely? We never get an explicit answer, and we don’t know Lady Duff Gordon well enough to infer one. The absence of reason could be made meaningful by linking it to questions about human nature, repressed female rivalries, the corruption of class privilege, the threats of colonial resistance, or really anything provided it arose from the personal and historical situation of the characters, but it just happens and so it feels (despite apparently being the truth) like nothing more than a plot device. Omar’s choice of Lady Duff Gordon over Sally is similarly overdetermined and underdeveloped: we don’t know him, either, well enough to grasp why he would love her, marry her, protect her, and then turn away from her to serve his own self-interest.
The novel is just too thin. Historical fiction can founder, to be sure, on heavy-handed exposition, but The Mistress of Nothing moves so briskly along that instead of being elliptical or evocative (which I gather is the usual intention with contemporary fiction with this kind of sparse declarative style) it feels perfunctory: have to get them to Egypt, have to get them to Luxor, must stop at some pyramids and see some crocodiles, be sure to bring up the tensions between the peasants and the khedive. The landscape is mentioned more than described. The Valley of the Kings gets most of a paragraph. I find it baffling that Anthony Sattin, who literally wrote the book on the Victorians in Egypt, would say that Mistress of Nothing “brings 1860s Cairo and Luxor to life, not as an Orientalist fantasy, but as they might actually have been.” There are a lot of period details, but as with the descriptions of the Egyptian landscape or historical sites, their sensory impact is minimal (this is one respect in which The Map of Love seems to me far more successful). Did Pullinger deliberately avoid giving her novel depth or breadth from fear of its looking like a historical blockbuster rather than a ‘literary’ novel? Or was she impatient to get to the end of the interesting true story she had decided to retell? It certainly felt like the latter, especially towards the end of the novel, which has an implicit “and then, and then, and then” rhythm. Nothing is lingered over, and to this reader anyway, that’s a shame when the material (historical, geographical, even, potentially, thematic) is so rich. A particularly intense moment of disappointment for me was the throwing off of the stays. Clearly, this is, or should be, a compellingly symbolic moment: the constraining, “heavy-boned” stays represent all the social and other constraints of their old life in England, while their embrace of Egyptian-style clothing signals the transformation of their life and values by their experiences. But it’s only page 52, and we haven’t seen life in England in enough detail to appreciate why it needs to be thrown off (does Pullinger assume that her readers will take for granted that Victorian England is disposable?) much less what it is exactly about Egypt that they should want to put on. It’s also done very theatrically (how far can we trust Lady Duff Gordon’s flamboyant gestures?) but the possibility that it is not a sincere or profound change is not explored. What we do get, rather inexplicably, is an assertion from Sally about how this change in her mistress’s outfit changes their relationship:
My Lady cast off her English clothes and it was as though in that moment our relationship shifted as well, in some unspoken, unpredicted way. I was not her equal, I was part of her routine, part of her life, my care for her so intimate that it was as though I was part of her body – a hand, perhaps. A foot. Something indispensable, to which you do not give much thought. But from that moment hence, things shifted between us, and life changed.
Yes, well, if you say so–and you do, insistently and yet unconvincingly.
And what about Orientalist fantasies? There’s no question that Sally’s romance is with an idea of Egypt, embodied (as shown in the sculpture passages above) in Omar. The novel might have taken this up as a problem, showing Sally replacing her fantasy with a more complex and realistic idea of modern Egypt. A bit of this does go on, as she and Lady Duff Gordon get interested in agriculture and politics. But Sally remains prone to generalizations about all things Egyptian, or to predictable effusions such as “Egypt is sleeping, as it has slept for millenia.”
Leafing through the book one more time, I am reminded that it’s not all bad but in fact contains some bits of fine writing and tells a story that is intrinsically interesting. In the end, though, I just don’t think it does justice to its own raw materials, and also I think that “some bits” of good writing are not enough to earn it a major literary award. Some of the very best bits in fact are in the letters of Lady Duff Gordon (published as Letters from Egypt), so I have downloaded them from Project Gutenberg to take a further look. I had high hopes when I ordered The Mistress of Nothing that it might be substantial enough to become part of whatever exactly the project is that I’m doing on Ahdaf Soueif, Victorianism, and postcolonialism. But it really doesn’t say enough, about the Victorians in Egypt, about English writing about Egypt, about gender or class in these contexts, or about the novel as a form that is significant to our understanding of other times or places or people.
*I kind of doubt that it was, as Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness was a finalist. Perhaps the jury decided Munro had won enough prizes already this year?