It is 1833. William Wilberforce has brought about the abolition of slavery within the British Empire, but elsewhere others are less fortunate. Zena, a beautiful and headstrong young Abyssinian girl, is captured by slave traders and brought from her home village to Muscat, where she becomes the property of Lieutenant James Wellstead, an ambitious British naval officer, who is there surveying the Arabian Peninsula. When he embarks on a mission to rescue two fellow officers, Zena is in the party which travels with him into the desert. It is a journey that will change both their lives.
Hearing that three letters, written by James Wellstead and held in the John Murray archive at the National Library of Scotland, inspired Sara Sheridan to write Secret of the Sands, piqued my interest in this book. I wanted to see how the author handled a novel which was centred around a real person and what she knew about him from his letters and journals but which was also a fictional imagining.
After reading a few pages, it became clear that James Wellstead was in extremely capable hands. Sara Sheridan is a consummate storyteller, moving from Abyssinia to London to Bombay to Muscat and into the desert or along the Arabian coast with ease. She conjures each place with its accompanying sights, sounds and smells, so that you feel as if you are right there, and then peoples it with a diverse range of characters. I admired the central characters of Wellstead and Zena, who may come from totally different backgrounds but who both find the strength to adapt to their environment and devise ways of coping with whatever trials and hardships they have to face. I practically cheered every attempt of Wellstead's to understand and learn about the country, its people and customs, which was in stark contrast to the attitude shown by his fellow British officers. I smiled and urged Zena on in her subtle shows of defiance. I also grew fond of the captive Doctor Jessop, as well as the Arabian Mr Fix-It, Mickey and his wife, Farida.
Secret of the Sands is wonderful storytelling and was such a captivating read that I felt as if someone were sitting beside me, whispering the story to me, while watching it unfold in front of us.