So many novels start promisingly and then fizzle out, as if the author ran out of ideas. The Mistress of Nothing, though, starts languorously and suddenly changes gear about half way through, when both the personal lives of the characters and the political situation in Egypt seem about to explode in turmoil. Until then, the book had seemed in danger of drifting aimlessly so for me at least, the shocking changes came just in time.
The central protagonist and narrator of the story, Sally Naldrett, was the loyal and devoted lady's maid to Lucie Duff Gordon but little else is known about her. The story, therefore, although based on fact surrounding Lady Duff Gordon's sojourn in Egypt to alleviate the inexorable march of TB, is almost entirely fictional.
This is at first a gentle tale that makes you feel as if you are drifting down the Nile in the heat of the Egyptian sun with Omar, employed to negotiate with the locals and take care of their provisions etc. The descriptions of Egypt and the Nile are magical, if at times somewhat laboured, as if the author is trying just a little too hard - it's a fascinating country, but sometimes it seemed as if she was determined to make her readers as dazzled by it as she was. I sensed the same feeling of overkill after the dramatic turn of events in the middle of the story, when, in shock and disbelief, Sally was trying to rationalise her employer's reactions. (To be more explicit would give away too much about what happens and hence spoil the story for others.
Although I enjoyed the book, I felt it fell short of five stars. I'd have given it 7 out of 10 if that had been an option. My main criticism is that I never really felt I got to know Sally Naldrett on anything other than a superficial level. She told her story and, at various stages of the book, described her feelings. But I was always the outsider listening to and watching what was happening without ever being drawn into the passions and disappointments that were laid out on the page. The ending too was, I felt, weaker than I'd have hoped. A shame because in many ways this is an excellent book with a compelling and unusual central theme. It is certainly worth a read and, despite my reservations, I would recommend it.