Sunday, August 26, 2012


The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer is a sweeping novel of nineteenth century Victorian Egypt as we follow the fictional meeting of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, a meeting that will set both on the course of their life’s work, as they travel up the Nile and back. Vivid characterizations, loads of historical detail and pictures painted with words give a strikingly accurate depiction of nineteenth century Egypt as well the two-faced morality of theVictorian world.

Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert never met in real life, although they both traveled the Nile at around the same time. Florence is rich, privileged, highly intelligent, well-educated yet naive, strong-willed and determined to do good in the world, yet thwarted under the stultifying Victorian mores that cast women solely as wives and mothers. Gustave, childish, supremely selfish, disgustingly dissolute, cruel to women and suffering from epilepsy he conceals, is a fledgling writer, but has yet to make his mark.

The contrast between these two dissimilar characters couldn’t be more extreme, and yet a friendship of sorts springs up between them, a friendship which will change both their lives.

Ms. Shomer paints pictures with words as she describes Egypt’s blistering heat, the ever-present sand and the extreme poverty of the cowed people who must survive in a country where bribery, and hence the rich, rule.

Her characterizations are masterful. I suffered along with the downtrodden Florence, destroying herself as she fights to stifle her natural exuberance and desire for a life different from those of her class. I despise the self-serving Gustave, who cares for no one but himself, and most especially, his penis. I found him such a completely unsympathetic character, that he deserves all the suffering his epilepsy and other torments can inflict. While I like descriptions, I would have preferred the author not dwell so much on Gustave’s offensive exploits.

I found the second section of the book, where Florence and Gustave take a side trip to the Red Sea, to be the best part. The mystery of Florence’s maidservant and the accord Florence and Gustave reach while stranded in the desert with little water are engrossing.

The title comes from an Egyptian myth in which the sun god, Ra, must travel through the twelve rooms of the underworld each night before he can emerge to grant the world another day.

Those who enjoy historical fiction set in exotic climes may enjoy this book.

Thank you all,
ARC provided by Simon & Schuster

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