Review: The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Saturday, August 25, 2012


In a place that preserves time, two lost young people traveling down the same river, meet and change each other's perspectives forever. That these two young people happen to be pre-fame Florence Nightingale and Madame Bovary author Gustave Flaubert and that these two people really did travel up the Nile at the same time in the year 1853 is the spark that allows Enid Shomer to take a leap of faith in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile and imagine what might have happened had the two met and formed an unlikely friendship. 

That leap of faith is lovingly, deeply imagined through chapters alternating between the perspective of Nightingale and Flaubert. Egypt comes alive in luscious detail seen through both the virginal perspective of Nightingale, who feels constrained by her family's suffocating insistence on propriety but longs to come alive, and the licentious view of the bored Frenchmen Flaubert. They meet and it's a testament to Shomer's strength as a writer that we believe these two very different people would be interested in ever speaking to each other beyond a casual acquaintance. 

Some readers may find the moment by moment examination of both lead characters' consciousness and experiences too much but I adored this element of the novel. It's rare to find historical fiction that goes so deeply into the consciousness of the past and makes you understand what it felt like to be a young man or a young woman in the middle of the 19th century, seeing the wonders of Egypt before they had been fully exploited. 

If you can come to Nile with these expectations, you will not be disappointed. But if you are expecting a novel that builds beyond the basics of two people on a trip talking again and again about their lives, you may want to look elsewhere. After building two believable characters, fully inhabiting their worlds and making their relationship believable, Shomer doesn't seem entirely sure of where to go next. I respected her decision not to take Nightingale and Flaubert's relationship into too-predictable territory but ultimately it all added up to very little. 

When the two finally part, I sensed that Flaubert was not affected all that much and that Nightingale - other than recovering from an infatuation - was already on her set path. Perhaps the amateurish handling of a subplot with Nightingale's maid - complete with the requisite abduction by Egyptian brigands - distracted me from her more sensitive points. Readers should also be aware that in her effort to emphasize the differences between Nightingale and her "sacred" calling with Flaubert and his attraction to the "profane," Shomer is quite graphic in her descriptions of the Cairo brothels. 

Those interested in beautiful writing and breathtaking descriptions of Egypt will find much to like here. Moreover, it's rare to read a book about people who are just about to make a crucial change in their lives. Most novels examine the actual turning point and I appreciated that difference in perspective. But ultimately, I found myself disappointed and asking how it all added up. 

Reading Grab Bag!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

For some time now, I've been meaning to post about non-HF books I've read and enjoyed this year. I dragged my feet, thinking I would need to post full reviews for each one! But in the spirit of the Olympics (the fast sprints are on tonight!) I am posting blurb reviews. They're meant to give you a flavor of the book - hopefully they'll encourage you to try something new and different.

Finding Nouf, City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris
I'm a bookstore offender. I browse at Politics and Prose, my local independent bookstore, and then turn right around and reserve books at the library down the street! This trilogy of literary thrillers set in Saudi Arabia was one of my best finds. The pacing is a bit slow and the mysteries are nothing special but you will not forget the sensitive, nuanced glimpse into a very different place and culture and the unusual but true to life characters.

In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor by Tana French
I don't read much crime fiction but I can state with almost near-certainty that French's Dublin Murder Squad novels are the best around. Each book follows a similar pattern - first person narrative by a member of the squad, each book picks up with a new lead character who was a minor character in the previous novel. The detective investigates a crime that revives ghosts from their own past, testing them psychologically. I devoured each and every one of the novels but Faithful Place has a depth that can't be matched. Save it for last - you won't be sorry!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Desperate to find something to fill the gap after finishing all of Tana French's novels, I turned to Gillian Flynn's three psychological thrillers. The first two didn't do much for me but her newest actually affected my mental state for a couple days it was so enthralling. No gore - just the horror of what people can do to each other emotionally. Even though I had a terrible PDF Kindle Advance Readers Copy and sped through it in about two days.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
This one time, you should judge a book by its cover. Usually when a book has such a breathtaking scene on the front it turns out to be a dud - not so with this fractured yet sweeping novel that encompasses Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Cleopatra, reality TV, Idaho community theatre, the Dublin rock scene and all of the people who inhabit these worlds and are connected in knowing and unknowing ways.

Londoners by Craig Taylor
If you're watching the Olympics and longing to visit London, this book is the perfect salve. I generally don't go for oral histories but Taylor has solicited such a wide range of opinions, occupations and ages, I found myself fascinated. All the beauty and boredom of life and everything in between is here. Enjoy it for the kaleadiscopic depiction of London but you'll remember it for some heart-stopping moments that are better than any novel.

Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo
I've read what feels like a million memoirs from journalists based in the Middle East. This is the only one that told me what it felt like to actually be on the ground in the middle of a war. Through an exploration of homes and food, Ciezadlo makes the people of Lebanon and Iraq seem like real breathing human beings not just characters in a newspaper story.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Unlike most coming of age tales, this stylish 30s era novel actually worked for me because the narrator seemed like a very real young woman - full of acerbic wit, intelligence and deep insecurities. The timeless ending - that could hold true for any era - almost brought me to tears.
Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed is a genuis. I was lucky enough to read an ARC of her soul-baring memoir recounting a trek on the Pacific Crest Trail months before it became a hit and revived Oprah's book club. I already knew I'd found something special and wept at the ending. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of her online columns for The Rumpus. I do not buy brand-new books - I went out and got both of these immediately. I know I will always want to have them with me.