Paperback reviews: “Alexandria: The Last Nights Of Cleopatra”, “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty”, “Y”, “Oman: The True-Life Drama And Intrigue Of An Arab State”, “The Informationist”

 

“Alexandria: The Last Nights Of
Cleopatra” by Peter Stothard (Granta £9.99)

In late 2010, Peter Stothard, the former editor of The Times, visited Alexandria, intending to finish a long-planned biography of Cleopatra. But as he sat down at his desk at the faded Hotel Metropole, the remnants of previous, aborted manuscripts laid out before him, he found himself unable to begin. He took to wandering the city, entertained by his querulous guides, disturbed by the first rumblings of the Arab Spring, and distracted by memories of his childhood.

Like Stothard’s previous book, On the Spartacus Road – which weaved the story of the rebellious slave with a record of his own, near-fatal battle with cancer – the result is a mixture of biography, travelogue and memoir. Its guiding theme is that one’s formative experiences can seem as elusive as the facts of ancient history: the image of the great Alexandrian library recurs as a potent symbol of transience and loss.

Often Stothard’s recollections – of his childhood in a village populated by military engineers; of his time studying classics at Oxford with his oldest friend, the louche Maurice – seem less vividly present to him than Cleopatra’s sojourn in Rome, or “Caesar’s heroic swim through the harbour” during the Siege of Alexandria, “his state papers held one-handed above the waves”.

There is a fine line between self-elegy and self-regard, and readers will have to decide for themselves whether Stothard stays on the right side of it. Those expecting exotic tales of Cleopatra’s court may feel cheated when presented by vignettes of the author’s boarding school teachers or his stint working in what he calls simply “Big Oil”. But he writes with a redemptive self-awareness – “this is becoming a book about me … that is not what I intended” – and the juxtaposition between the Essex of his upbringing and the Egypt of his imagination lends the book a rich poignancy.

****

“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber (Penguin £5.99)

James Thurber – writer, cartoonist, wit – is probably best known as the creator of Walter Mitty, played on screen by Danny Kaye and, latterly, Ben Stiller. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” first published in The New Yorker in 1939, is, in fact, only a couple of pages long, telling of the hen-pecked nebbish as he takes refuge from everyday humiliations in dreams of heroism and adventure. He ends the story lost in a fantasy of martyrdom: “Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”

While Mitty’s rich interior life lends him a sort of dignity, it also leaves him isolated. This aspect is more pronounced in other characters found in this collection, which features sharp and unpitying depictions of urban loneliness. In “The Evening’s at Seven” an unhappy husband stops in on an old flame before reluctantly returning home; “One is a Wanderer” tells the story of a hotel-dwelling loner in unadorned prose (“He had had too many nights alone. Once he had enjoyed being alone. Now it was hard to be alone”). Such tales reveal the tragic edge to Thurber’s comedy.

****

“Y” by Marjorie Celona 9Faber £7.99)

Marjorie Celona begins her debut novel by pondering the significance of the letter Y: “That perfect letter ... The question we ask over and over … Why?” This is the key to the story: narrator Shannon was abandoned as a baby, left at the doors of a YMCA, and despite finding a supportive adoptive family, she is drawn to ponder why her mother gave her up. Celona writes affectingly of the experience of adoption: “They’re not bad people and they never have been,” Shannon says of her guardian, Miranda, and her daughter. “[But] how do you become part of someone else’s family? You don’t and you never do.” Shannon never quite comes to terms with her past, but Celona grants her, in the end, a kind of peace.

****

“Oman: The True-Life Drama And Intrigue Of An Arab State” by John Beasant (Mainstream £12.99)

John Beasant’s political history of the secretive state of Oman – first published in 2002 but reissued to incorporate an update on the Arab Spring – describes how “the least hospitable land on God’s earth” became a powerful and strategically important nation, ruled with absolute authority by a Sultan but diplomatically linked to Western nations, Britain among them.

Beasant writes with authority, and there is much well-researched detail here that will interest specialists in Middle Eastern politics. For the general reader, on the other hand, this somewhat long-winded book will seem a bit like the Arabian desert: dry, featureless, and a slog to cross from one end to the other.

***

“The Informationist” by Taylor Stevens (Arrow £6.99)

Vanessa Munroe is a secret agent. The act of violence gives her a “shock of euphoria”, and upon entering a room she says no-nonsense things such as: “Caffeine I could use … thick and black”. Hired by a Texas oil magnate to track down his missing daughter, Munroe follows a trail of clues into the jungles of central Africa, where she finds herself assailed by traumatic memories of childhood years spent in the company of cut-throat mercenaries. Stevens’s plot is convoluted; her prose clunky; and her dialogue an endless ribbon of cliché. But her assassin protagonist is invested with enough energy and spark to suggest that the mooted big-screen adaptation – James Cameron has picked up the film rights – could be worth a look.

***

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