The lives of two restless women separated both by a century and from all they love most are explored in replete parallel narratives—in this Booker-nominated third novel from the Egyptian-born British author (In the Eye of the Sun, 1993, etc.).
In 1901, Englishwoman Anna Winterbourne, living in British-occupied Cairo, is left alone when her husband in essence dies of depression and despair over his country’s arrogant cruelty toward this newest jewel in its crown. Determined to penetrate to the heart of Egypt’s patient, seductive mysteries, Anna ends up a captive in the home of prominent attorney and political figure Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi, who will become her second husband. The story of their arduous effort to blend in their own union the best of their two warring cultures is uncovered in the late 1990s by Anna’s great-granddaughter Isabel Parkman, a journalist who’s researching Egyptian concepts of, and attitudes toward, the approaching millennium. Isabel’s life imitates Anna’s to the extent that she too is in love with a native Egyptian: volatile symphony conductor, writer, and political activist Omar, who has fathered her child—perhaps with the aid of a talisman: a piece of a tapestry woven by Anna, depicting the fertility myth of Isis and Osiris. Much of this complex and exotic material is as engrossing as it is instructive, though Isabel’s gradual understanding of the world through which her ancestor hopefully moved (and by which she was eventually, brutally bereft and rejected) is too often conveyed in virtual lectures offered by Isabel’s researcher and mentor Amal—who is, in another parallelism that seems altogether too forced, the great-granddaughter of Anna’s companion and soulmate, her Egyptian sister-in-law Layla. Conversely, the Anna Winterbourne plot is often stunningly dramatic: Soueif makes us believe in this passionate exile’s deep identification with her embattled host country and genuine love for the man who embodies it for her.
Honestly earned echoes of A Passage to India, in an ambitious, gorgeously written near-miss.