There is a quiet dignity in this novel which was shortlisted for the Booker back in 1999. Set at either end of the twentieth century, it interleaves between the primary women protagonists from each timeline. The common theme here is Egypt and family, both of which links the central characters separated by almost a century.
Isabel Parkman, from New York and Amal in Cairo are brought together by their shared discovery of the journals of Anna Winterbourne, an English lady from the earlier part of the century who spent a major part of her life in Cairo. Initially a widow when she made her sojourn to Egypt, her disquiet with the cloistered existence of the expat community (most of whom made little effort to understand the natives) led her to undertake trips dressed as a man with a faithful servant. On one of these she gets mistakenly kidnapped and is taken to the house of the man she comes to deeply and madly love, Sharif Pasha Al-Baroudi. The feeling is reciprocated and a major decision, in a time when such unions were not socially accepted, has to be made. Make it they do and get married. Meanwhile, simmering political tensions between the occupying British and the natives keep gnawing at their otherwise serene family life, especially with Sharif Pasha being a public figure intensely involved in his country’s struggle for autonomy.
It is this thread that Sharif Pasha’s grandniece, Amal, picks up on by going through the journals of Anna. These journals, in turn, were brought to her attention by Isabel who maybe falling in love with Anna’s brother, Omar Al-Ghamrawi. Amal, though, has to deal with problems closer to home as issues with nationalists/rebels crop up in her village and she finds herself having to confront a country which may not be all that different from the one Anna was in.
And this is an underlying theme throughout. The love story is mostly beautifully felt and the tenderness between Anna and her husband is quite obviously evident, while she also strikes up a deep friendship with his sister and the rest of the family. A bit too sweet at times, perhaps, but still a good love story. But the focus on the political issues plaguing Egypt in both sections of the story gives rise to a melancholy at how things haven’t changed much in this beautiful country by the Nile. My own memories of Egypt, visiting as a child with my family, is of an enthrallingly interesting culture with some vividly portrayed incidents from its colorful history. But, in light of recent happenings since the Arab Spring, it appears things will get worse before they get better.
However, in the story I did feel that the political angle made things a bit confusing for the reader. The numerous names and incidents and coalitions became a jumble in my mind, with Sharif Pasha’s role not exactly clear cut in its description. And while I did enjoy reading Amal’s sections of the contemporary story, the parts with Isabel did not seem to ring true always, especially the forced love story.
Despite a few shortcomings, this was an engrossing read for its descriptions of place and time which made me feel like I was with the characters in Egypt at times and for its central love story.