Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kate Pullinger sets her novel in nineteenth-century Egypt

Pullinger novel concerns the nineteenth-century travel writer Lady Duff Gordon.

The Mistress of Nothing

Kate Pullinger’s prize winning novel, The Mistress of Nothing (256 pages, Touchstone, $24) follows the travels of Lady Duff Gordon, the outspoken nineteenth century traveler whose letters about life in deepest Egypt—she travels down the Nile to settle at Luxor (formerly Thebes)--are a treasure. Gordon is traveling for her health rather than for her amusement, and even as she experiences the thrill of a culture that is different from her own, she is steadily growing weaker from tuberculosis. As she weakens, she also becomes mean, and that is part of the story that Pullinger is trying to tell.

The story is actually told from the perspective of Gordon’s maid, Sally Naldrett, who travels with her and helps to supply medical relief when she needs it. The relationship between the two women in wonderful, and as they are exploring Egyptian ruins and settling into a comfortable life in the dry climate of Luxor, they seem more like sisters than mistress and servant.

This comfortable life is destroyed, as it were, by the presence of a man. Omar is a good-looking and industrious Egyptian, from Cairo, who comes into their household to help with translations and give them a familiarity with Egyptian customs. Both women appreciate him deeply, and although we only know Lady Gordon’s feelings by trying to interpret her brusque dealings with the young man, we suspect she harbors deeper feelings for him. We know for certain, however, that Sally is falling deeply in love with him. When it becomes clear that Omar has a thing for Sally too, it is only a matter of time before they are making love almost under the nose of their employer.

Matters are slightly complicated by the fact of Omar’s being already married, but as he assures Sally that is it really she that he loves, she is easily persuaded to overcome her resistance and give in to his beckoning beauty. She torments herself about the situation, especially when Omar goes to visit his wife and child, who are living with his parents in Cairo. While she is trying to figure out her place in Omar’s life, she determines that she is pregnant.

Omar is thrilled with her news, but also a little worried about what their boss will say, and they both decide to keep the pregnancy secret for as long as they can. As it turns out, they keep it secret until Sally gives birth one impossible night while they are on a boat on the Nile trying to avoid local skirmishes that are threatening to erupt into a revolution.

Lady Gordon helps with the delivery of Sally’s baby girl, but after that, she washes her hands of the girl and insists that she give up her baby and return to England. This can’t happen immediately, and Sally and her baby exist as ghosts in the house. Sally only emerges when there is a medical emergency that needs her attention. This is a brutal decision on Lady Duff Gordon’s part, but it seems as if her decision is made and it will be impossible to get her to change her mind.

In the course of telling this story, Pullinger creates a feeling for the experience of nineteenth-century Egypt; she gives the thrill that these travelers feel, but she also gives all the difficulties of taking on a foreign culture, as they do. She makes the politics of the era palpable as well, and when the political events seem about to spill over into their glorious retreat, it becomes a personal matter as well.

This is a splendid novel. It received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award, in 2009. That award is well-deserved.

Kate Pullinger

Get a copy of The Mistress of Nothing at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Charles Todd writes another compelling mystery concerning the First World War

Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team, and they specialize in mysteries that are somehow connected to the brutal conflict of the early twentieth century. They are always readable and often engaging.

A Lonely Death

Ian Rutledge is a World War I vet working for Scotland Yard in the years immediately following the conflict. In Charles Todd’s A Lonely Death (352 pages, William Morrow, $24.99), Rutledge is called in when three different World War I vets from a single village are murdered in a short span. All three have been lured into quiet byways and garroted. And all three leave behind families that had been happy to have these young men back from the war, even if they had seemed very different from the boys who left four years before.

Rutledge has his work cut out for him, especially since he has his own war trauma to deal with and his own ghosts to dispel. This is not easy when he is working on a case that brings him into confrontation with his deepest fears. But that’s the man we have some to know as Ian Rutledge. He’s ready to take on the task, no matter how unpleasant it is.

He is not exactly welcomed into the village in Sussex where the murders have taken place. The locals are very private, and they can’t understand why Scotland Yard has to poke its nose into a local concern. But Rutledge is good enough at his job that he mostly wins respect. Still, respect is withheld by a key person, a schoolteacher who was engaged to one of the men who was murdered, and she makes Rutledge’s life hell.

Accused of unprofessional behavior, of which we know he was not guilty, he is almost barred from the case. Well, actually he is barred for a while, but he returns when his successor is almost murdered. He cannot resolve the case, however, and he begins to despair of ever doing so.

Todd is good at getting into the spirit of a small village, and the tiny jealousies and shrouded histories of village life are all grist for the mill of this mystery team. The outline of the plot is not the novel's strongest point, but the feeling for the place and the sense of desolation after the war surely are.

In the end Rutledge succeeds and he justifies himself as well. This is surely satisfying. But even more satisfying is the sense that we have seen into the heart of the village and that we understand even a little more about the horrors of war, even when that war is fought in another country.

Charles Todd

A Lonely Death is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.