Learning about love and politics

This Booker short-listed novel which sets interracial romance against a backdrop of colonialism, religion and Egyptian nationalism

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (Bloomsbury £6.99)

About a third of the way through Soueif's elegant and gently plotted tale of forbidden love and political machinations, one character muses on the nature of history. "That is the beauty of the past, there it lies on the table: journals, pictures, a candle-glass, a few books of history. You leave it and come back to it and it waits for you - unchanged."

The immutability of the past may be the theme of Soueif's romantic and political opus, but it's a disingenuous one. This is a tale of the past revisited and rewritten if ever there was one. Such fusion of fact and fiction increasingly forms a genre of its own, due to publishers' enthusiasm for fictional diaries or letters in novel form, the tale of a life illuminating an epoch. It may also be that Soueif's Booker-nominated novel, written at the end of the last century, was following the trend of numerous publications last year for conjunction with its antecedent, the end of the 19th century.

This device of past digressions has unfortunately granted Soueif's story a familiarity that it never quite overcomes. Distant cousins, Egyptian Amal and American Isabel are descendants of the same noble Egyptian family, presided over by matriarch Zeinab al-Baroudi. Her son, Sharif, causes the upset in lineage when he marries English widow, Lady Anna Winterbourne in 1901. Isabel is Anna's great-granddaughter, Amal her great-niece and together they uncover the past through Anna's letters and private journals. Inevitably, they are closer to each other than they imagine as the two branches of the family criss-cross over each other through the century.

As Anna struggles to adapt to another culture, similarly Isabel, in 1997, has much to learn, both of Egyptian politics, the part the British have played in its turbulent 20th-century history, as well as of Egyptian language, the roots of whose concepts of nationhood and religion lie in the maternal. This is a tale dominated by women whose alternative histories fill in the gaps of the official one. Anna's private story is the staple antedote to school-room versions of colonial conquest, Isabel's enlightening by Amal a mirror-image of her great-grandmother's experiences.

The only problem is that this is so comfortably done, with no real sense of the disruption such an alternative view can bring. The one moment where it truly seems as if the past will intrude disastrously on the present is quietly defused, just as Anna's break with her culture to marry Sharif invites no greater problem than the occasional mild social snubbing. The past is not a constant as Amal declares; it can be silenced or altered in an instant, or over the pages of a novel.

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