Alfred Hickling The Guardian, Saturday 24 April 2010 Stevie Davies is one of our most consistent and continually undervalued writers whose unsentimental, quietly revelatory novels have cropped up on the Booker and Orange shortlists without ever quite converting to a major prize. Into Suez, her 11th novel, deserves to be the one that brings wider renown, as it presents the most fully realised fusion of her personal and political histories to date. Into Suez by Stevie Davies 448pp, Parthian, GBP11.99 Buy Into Suez at the Guardian bookshop The idea for the book came while taking part in the 2003 protest in London against the Iraq war. Listening to the speeches in Hyde Park, Davies was reminded of Aneurin Bevan's words calling for a resolution to the Suez crisis in 1956: "The prime minister has been pretending that he has invaded Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar could of course say the same thing, that he entered the house in order to train the police." Suez could be seen as the blueprint for every instance of disastrously mishandled Middle Eastern policy that followed. In Davies's story, Ailsa is an intelligent, self-sufficient young woman from the Welsh valleys who, accompanied by her young daughter Nia, sails out in 1947 to join her husband who is serving in the RAF at Ismalia in the Western Desert. Life in the world's largest military installation has some compensations, such as unrationed cherries in the company store. But the salt marshes of Suez are pitilessly inhospitable - "a lunar landscape as flat as Suffolk and sterile as death" - which leaves Ailsa to wonder "how many Arab labourers died to dig this ... ditch the Roberts family was arriving to defend as somehow British as the Manchester ship canal"? Wives of the rank and file are expected to keep their heads down and confine themselves to quarters. Yet Ailsa is spellbound by a sophisticated, dark-skinned concert pianist named Mona with whom she forms an attachment on the boat. Mona's husband is an Israeli army psychologist, which leads Ailsa to assume Mona must be Jewish; yet it transpires that she is an exiled Palestinian Arab. Also on the voyage is a young German refugee travelling to be reunited with her British husband and a querulous Welsh woman whose hostility towards anything foreign encapsulates the narrow, British fear of displacement. It's a cast of characters whose nationalities and circumstances are as confused and combustible as Suez itself; and though the story culminates in a distressingly well-executed denouement, Davies's main theme is what occurs when protocols are breached and privates' wives drawn into unguarded intimacy with the officer class. "What was Ailsa guilty of? Just getting out of line. Being, not even a black sheep, but a piebald sort of sheep in a field of whitish fleeces." As the daughter of an RAF officer herself, Davies has firsthand experience of being shunted round the remnants of empire: "The war had beggared and bankrupted Britain. We'd scuttled out of India and Palestine and we'd have to scuttle out of the rest of the Middle East. Scuttling was all we were good for." Davies first dealt with the traumas of being a bullied army child in 2001's The Element of Water; and her picture of the cruel indifference and blind prejudice of the British occupation of Egypt seems to have been further honed by her understanding of the average British forces boarding school. Davies frames the historical action with the contemporary account of Nia, who travels back to Egypt to meet her mother's friend Mona, still a celebrated and charismatic concert pianist in her old age. Nia's recollection of the 1950s is fragmentary, but formed of vivid impressions such as the sight of "stricken animals bleeding in the water". In one of the novel's most memorable scenes, we discover how bored British troops sailing to Suez used porpoises as target practice. "Ordered to do so, someone said. Uproar. Barbarians! Oh God, porpoises are only fish. Get a grip. Don't you eat fish and chips then?" It has to be pointed out to them that the creatures are warm-blooded mammals, like ourselves. But the incident serves as an example of Davies's remarkable ability to encapsulate imperial wrong-headedness in a single, indelibly recorded incident: cynical, gratuitous - neither sense nor purpose
About the Author
Stevie Davies was born in Swansea, Wales and spent a nomadic childhood in Egypt, Scotland and Germany. After studying at Manchester University, she went on to lecture there, returning to Swansea in 2001. She is Director of Creative Writing Swansea University. Stevie is both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy.She writes for the Guardian and Independent newspapers. INTO SUEZ is her eleventh novel. Her first, BOY BLUE (1987) won the Fawcett Society Book Prize in 1989. CLOSING THE BOOK (1994) was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Fawcett Society Book Prize. Her fifth novel, FOUR DREAMERS AND EMILY, described as 'poignant, funny and luminous' by Helen Dunmore, was published in 1996. THE WEB OF BELONGING (1997) was shortlisted for the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Prize and the Portico prize and dramatized for ITV by Alan Plater. Her next novel, IMPASSIONED CLAY (1999) was also shortlisted for the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award. Her eighth novel, THE ELEMENT OF WATER (2001), was longlisted both for the Booker and the Orange Prizes and won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award for 2002; Stevie adapted it as a radio play for BBC Radio 4. Her ninth novel, KITH AND KIN was longlisted for the Orange Prize and the film rights have been bought. THE EYRIE was published in 2007, to great acclaim. Stevie has also written thirteen books of literary criticism and history including UNBRIDLED SPIRITS: WOMEN OF THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION (1998). A CENTURY OF TROUBLES: ENGLAND 1600-1700 (2001) accompanied the Channel 4 series of documentary films about the century.