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Book review: Underneath the crinoline

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif Bloomsbury pounds 18.99
Stories of pretty young Victorian widows and dashingly handsome sheikhs of Araby are hardly an innovation. This is the stuff of purple fiction and pink romances, a formula that flourishes in the exotic settings of medinas, soukhs, or pyramids. The fusion of her class and his race affords inexhaustible and inexorable melodramas, spiced with the rhetoric of a land that is coming of age. The yearnings of an English lady for personal liberation are matched by those of an Arab pasha for the liberation of his country. According to the conventions of the bodice-ripper, the heroine starts by breaking rules to travel abroad, and ends in swooning collusion, being abducted on a camel and serenaded in a desert tent. Perhaps this can be seen as the 19th century version of today's fortnight in "bonking Benidorm".

The Map of Love contains many of the above ingredients. It follows the journeys of Lady Anna Winterbourne, who recently lost her husband to one of those mysterious wasting ailments that afflicted British officers who Saw Too Much, and Sharif Pasha al-Barudi, a charismatic Egyptian nationalist whose liberation politics cannot overcome his personal attraction. Intertwined with their tale of high Victoriana is that of their descendant Isabel Parkman, a smart New Yorker, who falls for Omar-al-Ghamrawi, an Egyptian several decades her senior, who, in a multiplication of complexities, turns out to be a long-lost distant relative who has had clandestine relations with Isabel's mother Jasmine.

The intricacies of the parallel plots 100 years apart, zigzagging between Britain, the United States and the Middle East, are charted by two very different first-hand accounts; the letters home of Lady Anna Winterbourne and the writings of Amal, Omar's sister and Isabel's beloved sister-in-law.

As if that weren't quite complicated enough, there is also the narrator's voice. And that, of course, changes everything. For instead of Mills & Boon, we get the assured confidences and believable revelations of an accomplished writer, with a talent for blending the personal and political and getting under the skin of each one of her characters. Assisted, of course, by the fact that Ahdaf Soueif is herself both English and Egyptian; has divided her life between the two countries; and is not only bilingual but ably versed in the culture and politics of both places. Her Egypt has the authenticity of both familiarity and respect, and is a million miles away from the land of crinolined ladies clambering up the flanks of the Sphinx and independence-minded pashas, and from glossy desert fashion shoots and dastardly Muslim fundamentalists.

Yet this is also a book that attempts far too much. At 529 pages it is not necessarily longer than Soueif's earlier novels (Aisha, Sandpiper and In the Eye of the Sun), but in scope and scale The Map of Love covers so much ground that readers lose their way in the desert sands. The real interest lies not in Anna's formally constructed letters home nor even in Amal's more vivaciously passionate accounts of family and political intrigue. These merely parallel classical Arabic, the language of literature which Soueif says she cannot compose, and that of Arab conversation which she does not write, preferring her adoptive English. It lies in what Ahdaf Soueif has to say herself - and, of course, in how she says it. What she has to relate of her homeland's colonial and post- colonial history is at its strongest when she interleaves the baldness of news cuttings with the lavishness of lyrical verses and her own vivid memories of the Suez years. But there's not enough of it, contrasted with a double plot that makes an already hefty tome still heavier, rather than carrying the history along. When Thomas Mann described Buddenbrooks as social history disguised as a family saga, perhaps he set the wrong precedent. It would have been better if Soueif had started with love of country and kept the human love affairs subordinate: here the map of the deserts, rivers and cities of Egypt win out over that of the human heart.