After my less-than-enthrallment with A Thread Of Grace, I was not as eager to begin this book as I would have been if I read it after The Sparrow and Children of God. Much to my own regret, it should be said, in retrospect. This book reminded me of why I fell in love with Russell's writing in the first place.
This is the story of an Ohio spinster schoolteacher, partially laid over the political machinations of the Middle East in the 1920s. It does what Russell does so well when she's on her mark - telling the story of grand, epic happenings in the context and framework of very small, very individual people's lives. You care about the grand events because you care about the people, not the other way around.
There were so many things about this book I loved, starting with Agnes, the narrator. I felt
for her, for the way her life was rigidly shaped by her mother, for her admiration and envy of her sister surrounded entirely by love, for her "why the hell not?" spirit of adventure that eventually emerges, for her retrospective description of her willingness to throw herself into an inevitabely-doomed (in gentle sort of doomy way) relationship in which she is both unfailingly kind and brutally honest with herself, for her frankness that never crossed the line into forced spunkiness or sassiness.
I love that Russell managed to make a dachshund
Agnes's wacky, fearless, sidekick that pushes her outside of herself without making it feel forced or a "look! it's a puppy! everyone loves a puppy!" moment.
the travelogue moments, which I know some have said detract from the narrative as a whole. Whatever. This book made me want to book a steamer for Alexandria immediately.
And, oh, I love the inclusion of T. E. Lawrence. I'll admit it - I'm biased; I loved the movie Lawrence of Arabia. But what I love best, whether it was intentionally done or no (doubtedly, given how tortuous this is), is that Russell previously wrote an (acknowledged?) homage to Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford of Lymond with the character of Emilio Sandoz, and Peter O'Toole circa the filming of Lawrence of Arabia being the actor closest to Dunnett's mental image of Lymond. See? Obscure and geeky and pointless, but it delighted me nonetheless. I was also delighted by how complicated Russell made Lawrence in a very few number of scenes. It read very true to the character of Lawrence I've read elsewhere, and she made him funny
My biggest grievance is that she didn't stick the landing. The ending started out so promising with the revelation of the conceit of the novel - you drink from the Nile, you end up back on its shores as a ghost at some point - but the rest of it felt both slapdash and meandering. All these characters from history! Thrown together in just a few pages! An interesting idea not really fully fleshed out. Grand philosophical ideas about life and death and change and the shape of the world - so much less interesting than Agnes herself! It both needed to be longer and shorter, for my taste.
Still, I thoroughly, thoroughly
enjoyed this book, and it puts Russell back on my must-check-out-as-soon-as-published list.