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.

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