The Sacred River, by Wendy Wallace.
The Sacred River, by Wendy Wallace. Scribner (2014), Hardcover, 304 pages.
An historical novel about three women from Victorian England who find new lives for themselves in Egypt.
Harriet is an invalid in her early twenties. Suffering from breathing problems most of her life, she has taken an interest in Ancient Egypt and its hieroglyphics. As pollution worsens in London, she convinces her doctor that going to Egypt would be good for her health. Her mother and her single aunt accompany her there. First the women settle in Alexandria where Harriet’s health improves. Then dust storms threaten a relapse. She and her mother go to Luxor and the artifacts of ancient Egypt. Able to breathe freely, Harriet gets involved in archeological work and for the first time thinks of having a life of her own. Shaken by an encounter from her past, her mother relives a traumatic that she has kept secret from everyone. Back in Alexandria, Harriet’s aunt finds strength and resilience that she hadn’t realized she possessed. But all is not well. Egypt is full of unrest, and not everyone wishes Harriet and her family well. The story of the three women is full of twists and turns, at times predictable and sometimes surprising.
Wendy Wallace is an accomplished writer. Her descriptions of the Egyptian landscape are moving. Her characters have depth. They consider issues of rebirth and death, appropriate to the tombs that surround them. The relationship of the mother and daughter is treated with sensitivity and nuance. The historical and geographical setting for the novel does little, however, to help us understand another time and place. The narrative of The Sacred River centers on its European characters. Native Egyptians are generally treated respectfully, but they remain in the shadows. The sheer distance from London seems more important to the characters than the exotic nature of the setting. Harriet seems genuinely interested in the tombs and the hieroglyphics engage her intellectually. The more likeable characters sympathize with the anger of the Egyptians over colonization, but this is a minor concern. I could have done without the scene of the riot and its result.
I recommend The Sacred River for all who love historical novels, especially those involving Victorian characters.
I appreciate receiving an ebook edition of this novel to review.