Theirs is a story pieced together, as this century draws to its close, from journals, notebooks and letters found in a trunk by Isabel Parkman, Anna's great-grand-daughter and by Amal al-Ghamrawi, grand-daughter of Sharif's sister, Layla. It is a story that would have the reader believe in the potential of love to reconcile Orient and Occident. And it finds a modern parallel in the nascent affair of Isabel and Amal's brother Omar, a Palestinian living in New York.
Omar is a conductor and author of political tracts who negotiates an identity in the "no-man's-land between East and West". As Amal's brother, and Isabel's future lover, it is he who introduces the two women. Both are orphans, both estranged from their husbands. Both perceive in Anna some key to their own happiness.
Exercising poetic licence where the historical material lacks coherence, it is Amal who narrates Anna's story. Amal remains a distant figure, chronicling her own life with clinical detachment. Her ancestors' past becomes more immediate to her than her own present as she sifts through the trunk's contents, secluded in a corner of her Cairo flat.
This gradual re-telling of history lends a deliberate pace to the novel. The plot itself is self-consciously repetitive, the lives of Soueif's characters unfolding unremarkably as variations on the theme of cross- cultural love - variations so subtle as to suggest it is the power of love that is the primary interest, the lovers themselves but a secondary concern.
Anna's initial experience of Egypt is vicarious, her impressions gleaned from art and literature. The essence of Egypt is no less elusive when, in 1900 and recently widowed, she travels there in person. Her letters home, chatty with social commentary, belie her frustration with the expatriate company she is obliged to keep and the limitations her gender and nationality impose on her freedom. When she marries Sharif, the choice is not merely romantic but ideological: a choice of East over West. Anna is "invigorated" by love. She adopts her husband's cause - Egyptian independence - as her own.
A hundred years later, prior to their first meeting, Amal credits Isabel with a negative image of Egypt: "the fundamentalists, the veil, the cold peace, polygamy, women's status in Islam". But Isabel, as did Anna, surprises him. Meanwhile, her research into attitudes towards the millennium is a perfect vehicle for analysis of the multi-faceted conundrum that is modern Egypt.
Soueif is at her most eloquent on the subject of her homeland, her prose rich with historical detail and debate. Ultimately, Egypt emerges as the true heroine of this novel. The histories of Anna and Sharif, Isabel, Omar and Amal become examples of "her ability to absorb people and events into the pores of her being".Reuse content