Nia "had the feeling she'd been smoked over in her crib, both parents pouring out their toxins." A political activist and teacher in her late fifties, her worthy, somewhat preachy presence wouldn't have been missed in this novel at all. Nor would the framing narrative, which tells how Nia travels east in search of her own childhood and her long-dead mother's past. The real meat of the book is her mother's story, a harrowing tale of imperial brutality and forbidden love in the Suez Canal Zone during the run-up to Britain's ignominious expulsion from Egypt in 1956. The adult Nia's story pops up mainly to point up the striking parallels between Suez and today's mess in Iraq, while also allowing for some clumsy exposition on the history and politics of the Middle East.
In the main story, Nia's mother Ailsa, a sensitive, intelligent Shropshire girl, works as a motor-bike courier in wartime London. She meets Joe, a small-minded man from the Welsh valleys, marries him and follows him out to RAF quarters in Egypt, where racism is vicious, and class divisions between the ranks strictly controlled.
On the voyage out Ailsa forms a deep bond with Mona, the wife of an officer, a relationship she realises is doomed from the moment the ship docks and she tries to introduce her new friends to her husband. It isn't the officer who objects, it's Joe, who knows his place and clings to it doggedly. Ailsa will not conform to the stultifying norms. She wanders off-base, fascinated by local life, continuing to mix with Mona and her gentle husband, Ben, nicknamed Habibi. Habibi is a British Jew, Mona a Palestinian refugee dispossessed by the formation of Israel. Officer class, neither has an ounce of prejudice.
Neither do Ailsa and the infant Nia, completely untouched by the poisonous bigotry surrounding her. As the country moves towards rebellion and passion simmers between Mona and Ailsa, the shadow of violence thickens. Yet Joe and Mona are "so blissfully and tenderly close", and Joe a wonderful father and loyal friend. The complexity of a deep love between two people of such opposing world views is not an easy thing to convey. Stevie Davies makes a brave attempt but only partially succeeds. Far more successful is the rise and fall of Ailsa's bid for independence, the progression from eager girl to sadder woman who "could only fall back on civilised manners".