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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Enid Shomer

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The Challenge


An author creates a problem for herself when she writes fiction about a well-known historical figure. On the positive side, it’s bound to sell her a few books. Readers like to have some idea what’s in a book they are going to buy, and knowing something about the main character helps. On the other hand, the writer has set the bar very high in the character portrayal department. She is writing about someone we know. We have expectations. Will this author be able to portray the character up to the standard of what we know and expect of the historical figure? At the very best, will she give us even more than we expect, so we leave the story knowing more about this person than we did?


As a reader, I had an interesting test for the writer of “Twelve Rooms of the Nile.” As it happens, I knew nothing about Gustave Flaubert, other than that he wrote "Madame Bovary," which I read thirty years ago. On the other hand, I thought I knew quite a bit about Florence Nightingale. We all do, in a general sense, and most of us hold her in high regard. So I had no expectations for one character, and serious expectations for the other. How would this author do?


I’m sorry, but she didn’t. The Flaubert I met was callow, self-absorbed, a failure as a writer and a human, full of obscene juvenile humour and flighty emotions. Over the course of the novel, he made a certain amount of progress, but at the end we do not hold out much hope for him. The Nightingale I met was similar to the typical 1970s disillusioned housewife, run away from her family to “find herself.” And have some fun on the side, away from the restrictions of her home-town puritan upbringing. Depressed, prone to nervous spates and phobias: the stereotypical woman of the repressed Victorian era, as seen by men of her time. At the end she is moving towards some sort of accommodation with her future, but the events of the story seem to have little to do with the heroine of medical care, her relationship with Flaubert almost nothing.


What was the Point?


Unfortunate, really, because if I had been reading an account of two unknown characters travelling the Nile in the eighteenth century, suffering the viscitudes of their personal demons and their times, I would have been quite happy with the story. It rings true to the feel of the era. These two, in spite of their attempts to escape by travelling, are repressed by the emotional and proprietal bonds of their society, and as in many novels and plays of that time, break out in uncontrolled emotional floods at odd moments. The fact that each can understand and put up with the other’s spates is the main bond of their relationship.


Another Time and Place


The other aspect of the novel that appealed to me was the quality of the description. This author does a great job of revealing people and places, with the added charm of showing a setting we all know, but in a time long past, before the Aswan Dam swamped it, and while monuments were still covered up to their necks in sand. The trials of camel travel and the panoramas of the desert were particularly vivid.


In the end, this is a moving tale of a society where gifted individuals must deny themselves the opportunity for normal relationships in order to make their greater contribution to mankind. I just think it would have come across better if the main character’s name had been Esmerelda Wren.


Recommended for fans of the eighteenth-century novel. Not for fans of character accuracy in historical fiction. 4 stars out of 5

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