Last night I dreamed I walked once more in the house of my father’s childhood: under my feet the cool marble of the entrance hall, above my head its high ceiling of wooden rafters: a thousand painted flowers gleaming dark with distance.
Short-listed for the Booker prize and acclaimed by critics worldwide, Soueif’s novel certainly seems promising: in 1901, Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt, where she falls in love with an Egyptian patriot and is swept up in the country’s struggle for independence from British rule.
There are two story lines, almost a century apart. There are journals and letters. The troubled travails of Egypt are explored through the casual racism of the British Occupation and the contemporary (circa 1999) fears of US/Israeli hegemony in the region. Most of this is approached obliquely, though the resistance to Mubarak is balanced with fears of the jihadi. There are mirrored situations where love conquers all and I felt my chest ache from repetitive sighing
The great part:
There are some amazing literary feats in the text, like little gems you find when going through a pile of non-essential information. Like this one:
On a low bed, pressed into a pile of silken cushions, a woman lies sleeping. Above her, a vast curtain hangs, through the brilliant billowing green of which the fluid shadows of the lattice shutters can be made out, and beyond them, the light. One wedge of sunshine — from the open window above her head — picks out the sleeper’s face and neck, the cream-coloured chemise revealed by the open buttons of her tight bodice. A small amulet shines at her throat. Anna glances at her watch: she has ten more minutes.
Or this one:
Old people are starved of touch: no husband, no lover, no child to slip a hand into a hand, to plant sticky kisses on nose and cheek and mouth, to snuggle and fit into the curves of the body. I watched my grandmother — my mother’s mother — in her last years: her hand, the skin drawn parchmentlike over the bones, stroking, stroking, the chairs, the table, the bedspread.
The bad part:
Despite the prospect of an interesting format, the story did not engage me emotionally in the evolution of the human relationships or in the indirect coverage of history and culture. There was little passion in the depiction of the love relationships, nothing elucidating about the inevitable cultural conflicts and challenges, and what dialog is included was inadequate to bring the characters alive.
About the author:
Ahdaf Soueif (Arabic: أهداف سويف) is an Egyptian short story writer, novelist and political and cultural commentator. She was educated in Egypt and England – studied for a PhD in linguistics at the University of Lancaster.
Her novel The Map of Love (1999) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and subsequently translated into 21 languages. Soueif writes primarily in English, but her Arabic-speaking readers say they can hear the Arabic through the English.