A detail-rich reminiscence of the author’s parents’ lives in postwar colonial Egypt.
Warner is an acclaimed scholar of literature and mythology, and here she applies much of her skills as an observer and close reader to the story of her parents. Esmond, her father, was a patrician, exact Briton (his father was a leading cricket expert) who met her mother, Ilia, in her native Italy when he was a British officer during World War II. In Warner’s reckoning, Ilia saw an opportunity to escape her rural station; Esmond was simply smitten by a tall, attractive, bright woman. Despite various cultural barriers, they married quickly in 1944. Three years later, shortly after Warner was born, the family moved to Cairo, where Esmond ran one of the city’s most popular bookshops. Warner’s memoir mostly covers the family’s stint in Egypt, which ended in 1952 when riots and fires closed the shop and spelled the end of England’s colonial presence. That drama aside, the book is largely an intimate story, alive in the particulars that Warner uses to explore her parents’ sometimes-incomprehensible relationship. A pair of expensive shoes Esmond bought for Ilia reveals how status-conscious they were; a pot of anchovy paste speaks to Ilia’s aspiration to Britishness; a photo of a popular nightclub singer opens questions about whether Esmond had an affair. The “unreliable” aspect of the book speaks to the fact that many of its events occurred before Warner was even born. Nonetheless, she draws plenty of insights through modest objects, from bookplates to cigarette tins to powder compacts. She recognizes these items can reveal only so much: “I moved among my ghosts and rummaged about in the past and tried to find my way back through the darkness that wraps them,” she writes. Yet she sheds light on a loving, if sometimes strained, relationship.
A compassionate, belletristic cross-cultural memoir.