on 12 April 2010
Usually a reader of more mainstream mass marketed adventure novels which have some links to historical fact: think Brown, Gibbins et al - I was delighted to discover this absolute gem of a novel. Intrigued by the setting and double narrative, I purchased the book and wasn't disappointed.
I must start by expressing one important truth: Davies' writing is flawless - quite simply in a different league to any of my usual reads. This was a refreshing experience - every word had it's place, the narrative flowed freely, painting beautiful pictures of Egypt, stirring every conceivable emotion from the depths, the plot gripping and not relenting until the last word. And the book did not finish when I put it down, I was left wracked with emotion, my senses assaulted, a feeling that stayed with me for days afterwards. Such is the quality of the characterisation that every delicious and sometimes painful plot twist and change in relationship really mattered - I have never cared about, empathised and sympathised with or understood characters so much as I did with 'Into Suez's' Ailsa and Joe. I have read a few novels with double narratives and always cared more for one time frame than the other. I have been guilty of skimming through chapters just to get back to the favoured narrative - I am delighted to say this is NOT the case here! Both narratives are of equal value and are integral to the book; they exist to enhance each other. We explore Egypt during the run up to the Suez Crises of the 1950's through the eyes of a newly married and adventurous Ailsa and her young and equally spirited and tender daughter Nia... During the early 2000's we experience a grown up Nia's quest to retrace her roots and uncover her families devastating truths; all the while mother and daughter are caught up in the hypnotic spell of the charismatic Mona Seraphim Jacobs.
Perhaps Davies' biggest achievement in writing this book is her ability to challenge your sense of stereotypes: Ailsa is no ordinary housewife - she will not be caged by her military house doing chores, will not be intimidated by the instability or conflict, will not agree with racism at any level and cannot help but feel that the British presence in Egypt is not justified. She longs to discover the 'real' Egypt, understand it's people, ride motorbikes and mingle with individuals she really ought not to. Joe has much deeper, warmer layers than his regimented military exterior, experiences in conflict and casual racism (sadly endemic at the time) exude. His relationship with his daughter is beautifully portrayed, his compassion and affection made very clear; his love of his wife is absolute and the extent to which he values his best friend is staggering. At the heart of this wonderful book is the fact that we human beings can't help craving something more... we take things for granted when we quite possibly have all we could wish for, we don't always learn from our mistakes, we justify taking risks to ourselves, throwing so much into jeopardy, even when we hear that warning bell ringing! The novel expertly explores the consequences of Ailsa and Joe's choices in Egypt and the devastating reality of the resulting aftermath. I cannot recommend this book enough - a 'must read' doesn't do it justice. I'm off to read a couple of Davies' previous novels: 'The Eyrie' and 'The Element of Water'. If they are half as good as 'Into Suez' then I am in for a treat! Thank you Stevie Davies for writing this powerful, challenging and wonderfully bittersweet book, I am stunned by it's brilliance.
I love Stevie Davies's novels - I've read three so far, and think her one of the top (and most underestimated) novelists working today. This novel, her most recent, was one of the best I've read for some time, a wonderfully plotted and moving story of love, jealousy, friendship and soldiering, set in Egypt in 1949, in the last days of King Farouk, when Britain still had control of the Suez canal, and in Shropshire and the Middle East in the present.
In 1949, Ailsa, a young and highly intelligent Englishwoman, travels out to Suez with her young daughter Nia to join her Welsh husband Joe, an RAF sergeant stationed there. A keen scholar, Ailsa had hoped to go to university, but her family's poverty and the Second World War put pay to that dream; instead, she married Joe Roberts, a former worker in a steel mill, who she met at a dance. Joe, from a working class background, shares few of Ailsa's intellectual interests though (like Hardy's Michael Henchard, he has a 'passionate reverance' for classical music) but nonetheless he and Ailsa love each other dearly. However, even before Ailsa has arrived in Suez their simple happiness together is threatened. For on the boat travelling out, Ailsa meets Mona Jacobs, a beautiful Palestine refugee, a trained concert pianist who she knew a little in London, and who is now married to Joe's Wing Commander. Ailsa and Mona become close friends, even though friendships between different army ranks are not encouraged. Over time, as Ailsa, Nia and Joe try to accustom themselves to life in Suez - from the mundane things such as unfamiliar food and the heat, to the terrifying aspects of Joe's job, such as terrorist attacks, including one where Joe's best friend is savagely attacked - Ailsa and Mona's friendship deepens. And Joe, as deeply conservative in certain ways as he is sweet and tolerant in others, becomes suspicious. Soon, with little evidence, he becomes convinced that Mona's easy-going, charming and intellectual husband is trying to make advances to his wife - or why would Ailsa be visiting their quarters so often? As life in Suez becomes more stormy, with many of the Egyptians clearly wanting the British out, so does Joe's jealousy grow more irrational - a tragic outcome seems unavoidable. Joe, Ailsa and Mona's story runs parallel to the present-day narrative strand in the book, in which Nia, as a middle-aged woman, travels back to Egypt with her daughter to find out what really did happen to her father and why her mother changed so dramatically after her return to England - and to meet Mona for the first time.
This is a wonderful big feast of a book. What is most impressive is the complexity of all the characters. Ailsa, the frustrated intellectual who pours all her energies into marriage and friendship - with mixed results - and who may not be entirely certain of her own sexuality - was a wonderful creation, a character one deeply cared about. So was Joe, a man both innocent, with native intelligence and a great kindness, and ignorant and prejudiced, regarding the Egyptians, who he barely knows, as an inferior race, and mocking Mona's husband for being Jewish. Davies kept us caring for Joe, even when his views were at their most disturbing, showing that his prejudices came from ignorance rather than cruelty. His increasing jealousy was as moving to read about as Othello's (though Davies has no Iago, and a rather different outcome, Joe's mounting irrationality was quite similar). Mona was a wonderfully ambivalent creation, both a great artist and a very caring and kind human being, and a woman who loved to dominate and control others, and I thought Davies depicted her relationship with Ailsa - are they in love or is it deep friendship? - very well. The relationship between Mona and her husband was also fascinating - are they both bisexual? What exactly do they feel for each other? - and Ben Jacobs a superb portrait of a charismatic thinker, not quite in the right place in the Army but keen to do a good job. Davies also enters well into the world of the child with Nia, who (though she can be rather bratty - but then stubborn, intelligent small children sometimes are) is a vivid creation. The descriptions of Egypt, of its music, culture and of Army life, and of the situation in nearby Palestine, were fascinating, and Davies painted a detailed and believable picture of what life might be like on an Airforce base. Although we get much less of the present-day story, I enjoyed that too; I liked the adult Nia a lot (more than the child Nia, I'm afraid!) and thought her meetings with Mona, and her reunion with Christopher, the little boy who'd lived next door to her when they were children in Suez, wonderfully created. All in all a terrific read, and I can't wait for Davies's next book. And this time, I hope she might win one of the awards she so much deserves.
on 14 April 2010
"Into Suez" was written by a masterful hand--one capable of balancing brutal honesty with the most delicate insight into human emotion. This book has a raw power to it, a visceral realism. The experience of reading this book was so intense that I found myself several times almost wanting to put the book down, to look away--and yet every time I couldn't--I was compelled to keep going because I felt such sympathy with the characters. Ailsa, Nia, Joe, and Mona are vivid, complicated, living out their parts of a story much larger than any of them. It is a romance, a history, a mystery. Davies finds a way in to the vast complexities of colonialism, war, and prejudice without ever for a moment letting us forget that here are real people who love and grieve.
on 2 July 2010
Am extremely impressed by this evocation of the horrors, both stark and subtle, of
empire - not just the British empire but any empire anywhere. This
book makes it so clear that racism, condescension and carelessness at best,
ruthless cruelty at worst, are the inevitable results of one nation ruling another. Into Suez held me gripped throughout. So much in it is so good: the living, breathing Roberts family; Joe's sweet
innocence and malign ignorance, two sides of the same coin; Mona's compelling
and eventually irritating charisma, her generous impulses and egocentric
irresponsibility, both also all one at root: the roundedness of all the
characters. Even Irene, who could so easily have been a cipher, really lives and
breathes. Most wonderful of all, as a character, I thought, was child Nia. I was
bowled over by the brilliance of the creation of her seven or eight year old's
insights and perceptions and urges and feelings, every one totally spot on.
A wonderful read.