The Mistress of Nothing, By Kate Pullinger

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The Independent Culture

Lady Duff Gordon, writer, translator and doyenne of Victorian literary London, left England in the hope that the warm climate of Egypt would benefit her tuberculosis. This novel is the real-life story of her maid, Sally Naldrett, who accompanies her, falls in love with an Egyptian dragoman, has his baby, marries him, and is cast off by her lady and left to fend for herself.

It ought to be a great story, and Kate Pullinger has certainly done her research. The details of Egyptian life, food, clothes, customs and politics are convincingly conveyed. It has something in common with The Remains of the Day – a servant's eye view revealing the true nature of the employer – but it lacks the subtlety and believable voice of Kazuo Ishiguro's masterpiece. Sally, as narrator, sounds like a modern writer's creation, not a Victorian servant, and linguistic anachronisms do not help. There is also an insistence on telling the reader things they could infer for themselves: "In that moment, my life was ruined." Come on: let the reader be the judge of that.

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