This historical novel approaches, slantwise and at considerable length, the 20th century’s most sensational archaeological event.
The most obvious way to fictionalize the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb would be to have the major players tell the tale—Howard Carter, principal archaeologist, and his financier and mentor, Lord Carnarvon (resident earl of Highclere Castle, of Downton Abbey fame). Beauman’s (The Sisters Mortland, 2006, etc.) more original approach—have a character at the margins carry the narrative weight—is riskier. The narrator, Lucy, is 11 when she first arrives in Egypt after the untimely death of her mother. Her trip is financed by her wealthy American maternal grandparents, since her widowed father, a Cambridge classics don, cannot cope with a child. Through a new friend, Frances, whose parents are archaeologists, Lucy hovers on the fringes of the dig, which includes the irascible, hard-drinking Carter; the affable, high-minded Lord Carnarvon; and their entourage of scientists, curators, wives and lovers. Abetted by Lucy’s snoopy spinster guardian, Miss Mack, the girls hone their eavesdropping skills on the scandals surrounding glamorous divorcée Poppy, one of the hangers-on. Forced to return to the gloomy home of her father, Lucy is schooled in the art of manipulation by her conniving governess, Nicola, soon to be her stepmother. Then Lucy escapes back to Egypt just as Lord Carnarvon and Carter reveal their find, exceptional not merely for the magnitude of its treasure, but for the fact that the tomb has remained, through three millennia, virtually unmolested by looters. The ensuing “Tutmania” has unintended consequences for both men. Lucy’s juvenile point of view is interspersed with the retrospective musings of nonagenarian Lucy, as a documentary filmmaker pesters her to divulge the untold story of the Tut dig. Since the main event is recounted mostly through hearsay, Lucy and her fellow supernumeraries have to be interesting in their own rights for this novel to succeed, and perhaps by dint of the sheer number of pages they occupy, they almost are.
There are riches here, but it takes patience to unearth them.