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Melodramatic but oddly involving
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.