Gold (Bloodline, 2014, etc.) crafts highly detailed historical fiction from the unparalleled life of Gertrude Bell, English debutante–turned-explorer–turned World War I diplomatic intelligence officer.
Before there was Lawrence of Arabia, there was Bell, “Daughter of the Desert,” a woman of protean intelligence, political acumen and undying passion for Arabia who became a seminal figure in Arab nationalism. After her formal “coming out,” Bell found prospective suitors less than her intellectual equals. Then she met Hashemite sheik Abd al-Rahman as he consulted her uncle, a British ambassador, and began to passionately explore Arabia and its culture. She often journeyed alone, a shocking decision then. Gold has Bell meet young T.E. Lawrence at an archaeological dig at Carchemish. They develop a platonic love that carries on through WWI, as the fey young scholar becomes Lawrence of Arabia. Postwar, there are political machinations, “a seething mass of distortions, contradictions, lies, evasions, prejudices, denials, and demands,” as Britain and France remain blind to colonialism’s impending collapse. Bell and Lawrence, albeit enamored of Arabia, were burdened by their own prejudices, perceiving Arabs as a “medieval and patronizing bunch of chauvinistic jingoists.” While Gold’s fact-packed narrative recounts the transition of desert fiefdoms into unstable oil-rich states wracked by tribal tensions, his character sketches are what shines—including Churchill, “a likeable, devious and somewhat untrustworthy politician,” and the brilliant Faisal, third son of the Hashemite ruler of Mecca and Medina, installed as king of the Bell-created nation of Iraq. Beyond the political scheming, there’s romance, literary appreciation for outsized desert vistas, acknowledgment of Arabia’s intellectual contributions, illustrations of gender oppression, and a précis on the complex elements relating to Zionism and Palestine. Gold offers an interesting, imaginative chronicle of an extraordinary woman present at the creation of post-colonial Arab-Western tensions.
A dense, highly detailed fictional yin to the yang of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.