Top critical review
Can I offer you Dom, Krug or Taittinger?
on 13 November 2012
I came across this novel by accident and was attracted simply by the mention of "Cairo" in the title. It proved to be an enthralling story of the pot-boiler variety, with lots of sex and intrigue that may be enough for most readers.
What I valued was the detailed historical picture of a long period of time in Cairo, with political events and personalities described in a way that brought them to life and presented a new point of view.
However throughout the book I had a constant feeling of discomfort, if not disgust, at the appalling amorality -- not only immorality -- that the author attributes to the upper-class British colonials who are the main characters. It seems that there is no nothing too despicable for them to explain away or simply ignore. Their delinquencies include turning a blind eye to premeditated murder, incest, unethical and illegal acts, diplomatic dishonesty, approval of child labor and indentured servitude, greed, indolence, and self-indulgence as the principle of daily life.
Given the desperate poverty of Egypt, it is sad that not one of the characters ever thinks of trying to contribute to improving the local people's quality of life. The only character with any moral conscience who takes herself off to become a missionary in China is laughed at as a religious nutcase...This moral turpitude extends to the members of Egyptian upper-classes represented in the story, who appear to have modeled British colonial values and behavior, mistaking these for sophistication. Even the American spy does not aspire to any higher standard of behavior, although as a spy one maybe he could not be expected to. It is a relief to find that at least the Egyptian revolutionary leaders demonstrate some desire to improve the status quo by driving the colonials out of their country. What an irony that the two most corrupt protagonists decide to stay in Cairo....
Of course it is to the author's great credit that he has created characters who are so real that one actually feels intense dislike for them. Their so-called "sufferings" appear unworthy of sympathy, all except for the two poor children who die. Perhaps it is the author's genius that he is able to depict the depravity of colonialism in such stark colors while still holding the reader's attention with a soap opera story of two families whose lives are permanently intertwined.
In general I enjoyed the book as a well-written story with evocative descriptions of Egypt, informative historical context, and interesting episodic events spinning around the two families. I just wish there had been ONE character that I might have respected or liked. I am not sure I could stand to read this book a second time!