This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.
After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.