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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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Wendy Wallace's exquisitely-written novel begins with an extraordinary image: in the poisonous smog of Victorian London, the mother of a dying girl finds a dead blackbird in her garden; but when she tries to throw away the fragile body, it suddenly takes flight and vanishes into the smoke.

This emblematic resurrection opens the story of young Harriet, her lungs damaged by the toxic fumes and fogs of industrial London, who is taken by her mother and aunt to Egypt in a desperate attempt to restore her health before it is too late. In a vivid new world of heat, dust, danger and romance, all three women are to spread their wings in different ways. But nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and deadly danger follows them from England, in the shape of Eyre, a twisted young artist who plans to seduce, corrupt and destroy the vulnerable Harriet.

To explain more would be to spoil the reader's enjoyment of this richly-layered and intelligent novel, which interweaves a number of fascinating stories, some tragic, some illuminated by hope.

Not a "romance" in the shallow sense -- Wendy Wallace's touch is much too sure for that -- this is still a deeply romantic novel full of passion and compassion. And, among other things, it is a scathing indictment of male Victorian attitudes towards women, confronting the casual everyday cruelties and crushing lifelong brutality with which men treated their wives and mistresses.

I absolutely loved this book, and highly recommend it to all enthusiasts of Victorian fiction.
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on 2 January 2014
The story is set in the Victorian era and involves characters introduced in the equally readable 'The Painted Bridge'.
Harriet is very ill, with recurrant and life-threatening asthma attacks. But despite her condition she has kept herself occupied by learning the meanings of hieroglyphics.
As a result of this she becomes fascinated by Egypt and when the family doctor suggests an extended trip abroad for her health, Harriet persuades her mother, Lousia, to take her to Egypt. They are accompanied by her Aunt Yael. It will be a voyage of self-discovery for each of the women, particularly as the country is on the brink of revolt.
The novel has a feel of an EM Forster (even though the book is set in the Victorian era) but written in a way that conveys the details of the leisurely life of the privileged while keeping tight control of several strands of a busy plot. The result is a story which moves at a good pace. There is also a sense of a Victorian melodrama, which only heightens expectation and helps to move the story alone.
Although the book is effortless to read, the reader has the sense of being taken through some epic events in the women's lives.
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on 11 June 2015
Wallace's second novel opens in Victorian London, where Harriet, a young lady of good family, is suffering torture from her asthma. She's read widely during her long illness, and longs to see Egypt, where she believes she will become well. After consulting the family doctor, Harriet, her mother Louisa and her aunt Yael set off for the Middle East. Each will have a different adventure there. Yael, who has spent most of her life caring for her own parents, becomes involved in missionary work and determined to help the poor in Alexandria. Harriet develops a great passion for Egyptian archeology and learns how to decipher hieroglyphics - she soon becomes close friends with a gentle German archeologist who encourages her towards an independent career as a scholar of ancient Egypt. However, Harriet is in danger, as she's being pursued by an English artist, who plans to seduce her - as his father did Louisa. And his presence causes Louisa to recall her own troubled past, which takes her to the edge of sanity. Meanwhile, the political climate in Egypt is growing more troubled - will our heroines see England again?

Wallace's novel is probably not the first book to read if you want a serious examination of Egypt in the 1880s. The tone veers towards rather overblown melodrama at times - particularly in one scene involving Louisa and a gun. The young artist's reasons for wanting to corrupt Harriet are never adequately explained, and the Egyptian characters tend to be somewhat one-dimensional. There are some rather predictable scenes (someone gets trapped in an Egyptian tomb, for example, and someone else gets caught up in a riot) and the book ends very abruptly. Nevertheless, I have to say that there were things that I admired about the book. Wallace's style is very readable, and she really brings the heat and dust of Egypt and its beauty to life. Yael and Harriet are both in their ways genuinely interesting women, and if Louisa tends to fall somewhat into the stereotype of hysterical Victorian woman, we still care about her. And the German scholar who falls for Harriet is genuinely appealing. The plot, if overblown, rattles along convincingly, and one always wants to read on.

A light read then, and not the most subtle evocation of Victorians abroad - but very good downtime reading. I look forward to reading Wallace's first novel soon.
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on 9 August 2013
Once again I must declare an interest in that I am the author/reviewer whose quote appears on the front of the hardback version of The Sacred River. However, I am writing this review because there is so much more to say than I could possibly encapsulate in those brief words.

Essentially The Sacred River is a Victorian novel that follows the physical and emotional journeys of three women who leave England to travel to Egypt. The reason for this journey is primarily due to the illness of the youngest - Harriet Heron - who has spent most her life being cosseted and constrained as an invalid. But when her doctor is persuaded that a different climate might be beneficial to health, she and her mother, Louisa, along with her Aunt Yael, embark on a great adventure.

That journey proves to be one of enormous significance for all three women. Alexandria is not only a place of spiritual beauty and ancient gods, it is also full of dangers; being on the brink of political revolt. Even so, it is in that environment that Harriet finds the freedom to grow and love. And there, through her sense of right and faith, Yael develops a consuming vocation for offering aid and education to the impoverished natives. And as for Louisa - well, in offering her daughter a future, Louisa will be forced to face a secret grief in her own past which she has kept concealed for years.

This elegantly constructed novel is redolent of a Merchant Ivory film - having that measured stylistic restraint beneath which their simmers the most profound themes and emotions. They ultimately lead us to a moving and shocking climax in which all three women will be transformed - in their past, their present, and their future lives.
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on 6 November 2013
Three women travelled from Victorian London to Egypt, and all of their lives were changed as a result of the journey, the country, and their experiences.

Harriet Heron was twenty-three years old, and she was an invalid, afflicted by asthma in its severest form. Her great love was Egypt, discovered and explored through books, and she longed to go there, but she knew her anxious, protective parents would not countenance the idea. She knew that they loved her, but she was beginning to find their love stifling. And so she spoke to her doctor, who agreed that the change in climate could only be beneficial to her health, and between them they persuaded her parents that a trip to Egypt, a change of climate could only be good for Harriet's health.

Harriet was thrilled that she could finally escape the confines of her life in London and see the world. Louisa, her mother, was anxious, but her love for her daughter compelled her to you. And because Harriet's father could not leave his responsibilities in London behind, he asked his spinster sister, Yael, to accompany his wife and daughter.

Egypt was everything that Harriet had hoped, and more. Her health improved, and she took bold steps towards a new life of her own. Louisa feared for her, and her fears grew when she encountered a man who knew about her past, her life before she was married, because she knew that both she and her daughter could be badly hurt.

Meanwhile Yael, a devout Christian, found a cause that gave her a sense of purpose that she realised had been missing from her life. She was shocked by the poverty, the poor sanitation, and the lack of health care for to the city's children and she made plans to start a clinic to support and educate their mothers. But she was shocked again when people she was sure would be supportive were anything but.

It was lovely to watch the three different women, and to see their stories unfold. Harriet was a wonderful character and was thrilled to see she her blossom as she stepped forward as a grown-up woman. There were moments when I thought her a little selfish, but I could understand why, and I never doubted that she loved her mother and her aunt. I sympathised and empathised with Louisa, as the story of her past, and the very real threat to her family's happiness, slowly became clear. But I think that most of all I loved Yael; her desire to make a difference, her willingness to do whatever it took, and her refusal to take no for an answer. She, like her niece, blossomed when she found a sense of purpose that had been missing from her constrained London life.

Wendy Wallace's wonderful writing made all of their stories sing. It was light, elegant, and so wonderfully evocative. Egypt lived and breathed. I never for a moment doubted that she loved and knew the country - and everything she wrote about - just as well as Harriet. there was so much to take in.

I was just a little disappointed that there wasn't quite enough space in a single novel to develop the stories and characters of the three protagonists quite as much as I would have liked. The telling of all of their stories was slightly episodic, and that made them a little less effective than they might have been.

That leaves me inclined to say that Wendy Wallace's first novel - `The Painted Bridge' - which focused on one woman's story, was a stronger novel. But I appreciate that she has done something a little different with her second novel, that she is still writing about the constraints on women in Victorian society, and the potential that those women had. And there was so much that I enjoyed about `The Sacred River' that I already wondering what she might do in her next book...
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on 17 August 2013
There are many things to admire in Wendy Wallace's new novel, THE SACRED RIVER. Not least of them is her ability to set a stage with economy, and in that economy to dress her storytelling with rich, complex characters who shine like brilliant diamonds in her prose. Even more beautiful and accomplished than that is the assured way in which the author deeply probes her themes: What must one do to have the freedom to truly live? And while each character struggles to carve an authentic life, they must exist alongside the sceptre of Death that hangs over this story like a pall.

Three women, each related to one another and yet distinctly and strikingly different, embark upon a journey from 1850s London to Egypt. On their ship, which is as vivid and rocking a ride as you might imagine, the first sign of danger is palpable in an unexpected, and for one of them, an unwanted meeting with a male artist. So the simple quest for improvement in Harriet Heron's health in a hot and arid Egypt becomes fraught with an edge the women had not expected.

Sometimes a historical novel arrives in a swirling vortex that echoes current affairs. It so happens that this is one such story; set against the background of turbulent times in Egypt, its import cannot be ignored. However, it is the truly visceral path upon which the author gently forces the reader to conjure the taste of the ancient dust, feel the cries of emotional transformations, and turn the pages quickly through the harrowing climax of this haunting story that is most memorable. With Egypt's sacred river ever at the periphery, Wendy Wallace has written a mesmerizing novel that I highly recommend.
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on 24 November 2013
The novel begins in Victorian London, where a dense fog clogs the air making it difficult to breathe, especially for the main character, twenty-three year old Harriet Heron, who is a severe asthmatic and an invalid.

Over-protected and desperate to break free of her sickbed Harriet feels as though the four walls of her room are closing in on her, like it's a coffin in which she will gasp her last breath. She turns to stories of Egypt for comfort, creating her own book of spells inspired by the Book of the Dead and dreams of dying in Luxor, rather than in the bed she has been chained to by her illness for most of her life.

Harriet eventually persuades her doctor to talk her mother into organising an extended trip to Egypt on the grounds that it might improve her health. But her mother, Louisa, is reluctant to travel to Alexandria at first, until her Aunt Yael offers to accompany them and she runs out of excuses.

All three women are strong characters in their own right and each goes on a journey of self-discovery in Egypt.

Almost as soon as they arrive in Alexandria, Harriet finds the freedom to breathe again. She learns how to live rather than how to die, and blossoms in the `rose and gold' warmth of the land. But not everything in Egypt is good for her and Harriet has to learn how to dissect the truth from fiction, like she used to decipher hieroglyphics while in her sickbed, in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Louisa is haunted by a ruthless figure from the past who threatens everything that matters to her. It's not the first time she has had to protect those she loves but how high will the price be this time?

In Alexandria, Aunt Yael discovers that faith can come in many forms, and puts her own beliefs to one side to listen and understand other points of view so that she can truly help others.

This is the second novel by Wendy Wallace and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's a scene in the beginning where she depicts a severe asthma attack so realistically that I felt compelled to reach for my inhaler. The suffocating, blinding fog that winds its way through the streets of London, seeping through every crack in a door or a window, to snuff out the lives of those who succumb to it, is strikingly contrasted with and the heat and light of Egypt. Wallace has a wonderful ability to create an evocative sense of time and place. You can hear the rhythmic call to prayer in Alexandria, see the packed streets teeming with life in a riot of colour, and taste the freshness of the food with each turn of the page. But not everything in Egypt is enriching, as seething undercurrents of hatred and resentment seep into the lives of each of these three women, with the same devastating power for destruction as the fog they left behind in London.

With thanks to Wendy Wallace's editor, Jessica Leeke, for the review copy of The Sacred River, published by Simon & Schuster.
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on 22 May 2014
It's the story about 3 women on a journey of a lifetime.

First there is Harriet who is slowly fading away in London. The air is killing her. She is fascinated with ancient Egypt and gets her doctor to say that the fresh warm air would be best for her (and it is, but Egypt is sure very far away.) She in her loneliness is actually something of a scholar. But at the same time she is very naive in her quest for freedom and to live.

Louisa is her mother and her secret from the past comes back to haunt them. I wished she had just told the truth, but ok the truth is hard but still. It could have saved them some trouble.

Yael is the aunt who is a devout Christian and see the plight of Egypt and wants to do something. And I did like what she did, she was no crusader, she was a humanitarian.

They are all running from something in a away and the each find something more. Well, almost.

A good story, an interesting location too.
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on 2 September 2013
Wendy Wallace is an exquisite writer, her polished prose as lean as it is redolent with meaning. This book, following on from the author's superb debut, has everything - compelling storyline, subtly developed characters and lusciously-evoked locations. A precisely-crafted novel about constraint and turmoil, clarity and liberty. Outstanding.
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on 26 August 2015
The cover first attracted me to this book, and from the back cover text it was definitely sounding like my kind of read. At around 380 pages it's not a massive read, there are quite a few blank pages between chapters so it's even shorter than that.
I think if the book had been slightly lower longer this would have allowed the story to gently develop, but instead characters were introduced and you knew their story instantly. But having said that it didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book.
It was interesting to read how the three main characters developed as they found a level of freedom in their new life in Egypt.
All in all a good summer read, and an interesting historical fiction book. Will definitely look out for more books by this author.
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