This book was a recommendation from Ape, who has sent some good books my way before (Plus, I’d liked The Sparrow, a science fiction title from the same author.)So got it from the Liberry, and read 3/4 of the book in just a few days (a week-long reading hiatus kept me from finishing it right away).
It turns out this is one of my favorite kinds of literature- historical fiction. The story revolves around a middle aged woman from Ohio, whose buttoned-down life is brought to an end by The Spanish Flu. The narrator tells us (and Wikipedia confirms) that around 50,000,000 people worldwide died of the 1918 Flu, which immediately followed another epic catastrophe, World War I. The grim historical pretext makes a nice backdrop for the idyllic midwestern life led by Agnes Shanklin, our protagonist. Her entire family perishes, but she survives a bout with the flu and the inherits the wealth of all her immediate family members.
Agnes’ sister Lillie had been a missionary in Egypt, so Agnes decides to leave Ohio and take a holiday in Egypt. At a Cairo hotel, Agnes runs into a friend of her sister’s, T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence happens to be in Cairo with Winston Churchill (not yet prime-minister) and a full house of British brass, who are planning what will be done with the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
This is the subtext of the majority of the novel, but I really enjoyed it. The hubris! The cadaverous British admirals! All described in careful (and humorous) detail. This discussion is paired with Agnes’ personal experience with everyday arabic culture, and all the customs and idiosyncrocies she runs afoul of. It’s a good history/culture lesson told from the perspective of an unpresumptuous observer, which is rarely the case in history books.
It also explains a great deal about the establishment of Iraq/Iran under British supervision, and is really pretty depressing in that respect. The approach to our current embrolio is defined by the same vaccum of reason/diplomacy which created the very countries we’re trying to occupy liberate.
Unfortunately, the end of the book is kind of silly. It’s told after Agnes’ death, from her perspective in purgatory. Strange, but not the worst ending I’ve ever endured.
All things considered, you should read this book. If you’re like me, and the most of what you know about the Middle East comes from the news, this is an easy history lesson about the place and the people.