I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Cairo, 1912. The Pasha receives an unexpected gift: a traditional Bride Box. When opened, however, the box contains an unwelcome jolt from the past – one which connects with practices long thought dead. At the same time, a little girl is discovered riding under a train from Luxor – and the Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police, is called in to investigate.
An Englishman squeezed between the demands of a world about to disappear and the emerging needs of a world about to come, the Mamur Zapt, finds himself confronting a political storm as the end of British rule approaches and his investigations uncover a tangled web of family loyalties and betrayals, with its roots in a slave trade long supposed to have been stamped out in Egypt.
In our age of instant everything, it is hard to remember what life used to be like—back when travel by train was the fastest option and considered so much faster than travel by donkey, when letter post was the ultimate in communication and when life proceeded at a much slower pace, albeit with sudden surges in action. This novel catches that pacing really well. It is still a modern novel in that there are none of the flowery descriptions and diversions that one encounters in 19th century literature (I always have to find a slowed down, more patient head-space before I tackle older fiction). Pearce’s investigators know that they have to do things at the proper pace (i.e. the rural Egyptian pace) or they will jeopardize their results.
I had two reasons for choosing this novel—it was recommended as summer reading on CBC radio and it was set in Egypt, a country which fascinates me (and which I kick myself regularly for neglecting to visit before the current upheaval). I have consumed a certain amount of Ancient Egyptian fiction, but this was my first foray into early 20th century Egypt. Jumping in at the 17th book in the series, I found I was still able to sort everybody out—I would probably be fonder of some of them if I had been reading from the beginning, but I liked them well enough on short acquaintance.
If you like things tied up in neat and tidy bows, this may not be your book. Pearce acknowledges the messiness of life and the dissatisfaction of having the best outcome not being necessarily the most just outcome. Reality, in other words.
It seems that the slower pace of life just 50 years ago has really been brought to my attention recently—just this morning, I was chatting with a student assistant about the differences between using typewriters and computers. We still have an electric typewriter in the library’s labelling department for use on one specific type of label—and our students universally find the technology difficult. If I confess that I learned to type on an ancient manual typewriter, I immediately become a little old lady in their eyes. (Additionally, I had to fight to take typing in high school—the thinking back then was that I wanted to end up as a boss, rather than a secretary, so I shouldn’t learn how to type because that was a secretarial skill. Since I now make my living by typing, I’m very glad I didn’t listen to that argument). In addition to the typing issue, I’ve been working on a writer’s archival papers the last several weeks and I find modern correspondence by email much more confusing to sort through than the stately letters of the past, which may refer to former letters, but don’t just attach copies of them to the body of the current communication! Content of archives is certainly shifting!
Not that I’m unhappy about using computers vs. typewriters or email vs. snail mail—just an observation about how much life has changed during my lifetime. It makes me wonder how my grandfather felt, going from plowing with a mule to farm mechanization to seeing a man land on the moon. He never did get the hang of reversing a car (my father, as a boy, had to back the car out of the garage always and as a result could drive in reverse at high speed for quite a distance—I’m somewhere in between, reversing slowly, carefully and not always accurately.)
It also makes me wonder if we can maintain the speed of change into the future—what will our society be doing by the end of my life? If I’m falling behind now, how will I feel at 90? Eek!