A trio of Victorian women travel to Egypt and encounter dangers—chief among them a taste for independence—in an engaging new novel from the British author of The Painted Bridge (2012).
Though just a young woman, Harriet lives the life of an invalid in her parents' elegant home. She suffers from asthma, a condition intensified by the venomous air of London in 1882. Fascinated by Egypt, she persuades her doctor to prescribe a visit. Her mother, Louisa, agrees (after consultation with her spiritualist), and so mother, daughter and spinster Aunt Yael make the journey; there are delicious shades of Forster here—naïve imperialists en route to an unknowable land. On ship they meet Herr Professor Eberhardt Woolfe, who is transporting a grand piano, and Eyre Soane, a painter who recognizes Louisa from a shared (and infamous) past. Soane intends to capitalize on his secrets. Alexandria offers clean air for Harriet and a rebirth for Yael, who has spent her life doting on her father; while opening a clinic for children, she discovers her own considerable abilities. But all Louisa wants is a return to London, to be rid of Soane and the memories he stirs. As a girl, Louisa was “discovered” by the great portrait painter Augustus Soane, Eyre's father. Hoping for a way to advance the family, Louisa’s mother insisted she sit for him; little did she know her daughter posed nude and was victim to the great man’s advances. When Alexandria’s windstorms begin, Harriet and Louisa travel to Luxor, where they again meet professor Woolfe, an Egyptologist taken by Harriet’s knowledge. In her he has found a kindred spirit: Harriet makes copies of the hieroglyphics he unearths, helping him decode their meanings. Meanwhile, Soane has followed them to Luxor, and a rebellion is brewing among the Egyptians, making a return to England seem increasingly impossible.
Whereas Wallace's first novel was marred by overreaching, this one is marked by a fine subtlety, making her a writer to watch.