Arabian Nights

I’ll tell you about my holiday in another post, but first, I’m behind in reviewing Kate Pullinger’s excellent novel, Mistress of Nothing, for her blog tour. So let me tell you all about that first.

Mistress of Nothing is the fictionalized story of Sally Naldrett, real life lady’s maid to the eminent Victorian, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, whose translation of French and German texts won her a place in the heart of intellectual society. But when this novel begins, Sally’s mistress is suffering from life-threatening tuberculosis, and immediate exile from her beloved family and the poor climate of England is strenuously advised. To save her life, Lady Duff Gordon agrees to renounce all her ties and to travel to the heat and dust of Egypt for at least two years, taking Sally as her only companion. Whilst many servants would dread such a transition, Sally welcomes it. She longs to see the world and is a natural traveler, independent, curious and bored with gossipy, narrow-minded English life. Embarking on a lengthy, dangerous voyage to the other side of the world is a prospect she relishes.

Lady Duff Gordon settles in Luxor, in a small household consisting of Sally and the resourceful Egyptian dragoman they found they needed to deal with the intricacies of a different culture. Omar Abu Halaweh is charming, devoted and highly efficient and the two women come to depend on him utterly. Despite finding isolation from her husband and children hard to bear, Lady Duff Gordon throws herself wholeheartedly into Egyptian society, learning to speak and write in Arabic, and involving herself in the political plight of the Egypt workers, cruelly and unjustly treated by their tyrannical leader. Enjoying an unprecedented degree of freedom for an English servant, Sally follows her lead, learning the language, helping Omar in his tasks and eventually casting off her stays and her formal English clothes in favour of native dress. Sally, Omar and their mistress become an intimate, unusual household as their English constraints fall away, and a new mode of living brings them all peace and contentment.

But inevitably trouble comes to paradise. Sally and Omar fall in love and the intricate patterns of their loyalties, along with the strength of their new freedoms, are put to the test. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this is a gripping narrative that combines a multi-cultural love affair with deeper questions about the strength of cultural attachments, the possibilities open to women in the Victorian era and the strange but binding ties between master and slave. I haven’t mentioned her very much so far, but for me the most intriguing character in this three-hander is Lady Duff Gordon herself. Capable of great generosity and flexibility of mind, intellectually enlightened and fiercely committed to the cause of justice, she nevertheless reveals herself to be limited in her close, personal relationships, needing to be the one who is looked after, fêted, admired and cosseted. But perhaps the greatest character in the novel is Egypt itself. This is a beautifully written book, pitch perfect in its historical tone and almost incandescent with the white heat of the Nile. It transports the reader effortlessly and seamlessly into another land and time, bringing the reality of living in an exotic, hostile climate vividly to life. Social comment is cleverly, delicately interwoven into the rich pattern of the narrative, so that the reader understands perfectly the deadlock that grips Sally and Omar when their loyalties are divided between their mistress and their child. All in all, this is a classy read, a historical novel that shimmers vibrantly on the page and lingers long in the mind.

And guess what: I have two review copies to give away! Leave a comment if you’d like your name to be put into the draw.

Also, the author, Kate Pullinger, was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for her:

1. I’m impressed by the range of contexts and situations that your novels span. The Mistress of Nothing is your first historical fiction – what drew you to this particular period and interested you in your subject?

My novel ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ had three different time frames in it, and with one set in the 19th century, in Canada and what was then British Guyana.  So I had done some historical research for that, and cut my teeth on getting to grips with the main problem, as I see it, of historical fiction, which is figuring out how to absorb the research and create fiction out of it.  My interest in the subject matter of ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ sprang directly from Katherine Frank’s wonderful biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, which I first read in 1995.  The story of Sally struck me forcefully then.  As well as this, I had been to Egypt once, including spending time in Luxor, and had loved it, so was very happy to find myself writing a novel set there.

2. I read that it took you ten years to write this novel and that at one point, a year’s devotion to writing it had left you with only one page. This is a plight any writer can identify with! What caused the difficulties with this narrative, and how did you finally overcome them?

Perseverance!  But also the story wouldn’t let me go – the historical fact that Sally gave birth on the Nile on Christmas Eve, having hidden both the romance and the pregnancy from Lucie, with whom she spent nearly every minute of every day, was fabulous territory for fiction.

The problems were many – I’d never written about a writer before and I found this hugely problematic; Egypt is the Land of Clichés when it comes to the way Europeans often view it, and Victorian Lady Travellers are also pretty clichéd territory now.  I found myself grappling with many subjects I knew next to nothing about – Egypt in the 19th century, Islam at that time, tuberculosis – I even tried to learn Arabic!  Also, I found it very difficult to get the point of view right, though now that the book is told entirely from Sally’s point of view, it seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t think of it in 1995 when I first had the idea for the novel!!!

3. What is the heart of this novel for you? What was the central question or concern that you wanted to address?

The absolute heart of the novel is that moment on the Nile. And for me the thing of greatest interest was trying to tell an otherwise completely invisible story; while Lucie Duff Gordon’s life is well documented, no one knows what happened to her maid Sally Naldrett.  For me this is of huge interest; while Lucie was an amazing woman, much loved to this day in Egypt, it’s the forgotten lives that interest me.  Also, having written a novel, ‘A Little Stranger’, that deals with a woman who is overwhelmed by the experience of motherhood and can’t cope with having a child, I was interested to explore the story of a woman who faces losing everything.

4. The Mistress of Nothing is an orthodox novel, but I know you have a great deal of interest in the digital world. I read an interview with you in the Observer in which you said: ‘Our ideas about what reading is will have to change to keep up with what is going on in a digital culture.’ I’d love to hear more about what you think on this issue.

For many years now I have had a foot in two camps, so to speak, the print publishing world, and the digital world, and while these worlds are edging closer together now, for me they are still too far apart.  I write digital fiction – look at and for some examples – and I am very interested in thinking about the future of fiction and what the digital age could mean for writers and readers.  I’m not talking about ebooks that recreate print pages digitally, but new forms of storytelling.  When you think about the long history of storytelling from cave painting onward, it is possible to view the print novel as part of a trajectory and not a glorious endpoint.  Storytelling is evolving.  However, for long form prose storytelling, like ‘The Mistress of Nothing’, the book remains the most brilliant, reliable, and beautiful technology.  But that
might change!

5. You’re currently involved in the project Flight Paths that aims to create a networked novel on and through the internet. Could you explain more what that means, and what you’re hoping to explore via the experiment?

I was interested in working on a fiction project that opened up the research and early development phase to other people from the very beginning, and this is essentially what ‘Flight Paths’ means to me. The story is one I’ve had in my head for a long time, but putting it up online, creating multimedia elements, inviting contributions from other people (we have fantastic contributions), is very exciting.  The project is unfolding slowly, and will continue to evolve – I don’t really have any clear idea of where it will lead.  With both this project, and ‘Inanimate Alice’ (mentioned above), I work very closely with my collaborator Chris Joseph; without Chris neither of these projects would exist.

6. I noticed a series of creative writing articles that you wrote for the Guardian. What advice would you give to an unpublished author working on a novel?

I think the main advice I would give anyone is to keep your head down and concentrate on the writing – don’t get caught up in worrying about publishing and agents and that whole side of things until you’ve got a manuscript that you are very confident about.  Remember it is much much easier for any agent or publisher to say ‘no thanks’ instead of ‘yes please’.  Read as much and as widely as possible.  And try to find impartial advice on your writing – usually friends and family are anything but impartial, so join a rigorous writing group or class, find an MA where writers whose work you admire are teaching, or join a mentoring programme for 1-1 editorial advice.  Most writers, including professionals, value good strong editorial advice.  And good luck!

7. Where do you see your work heading next? You have so many intriguing strands to your career – will you seek to consolidate them or to branch out into further new territory?

‘Intriguing strands’ is a nice way of putting it; sometimes I worry that I go in too many directions and would be better off doing just one thing!  But one of the great things about being published and getting your work out there in both print and digital forms is that opportunities come your way – and it is hard to say no!!!  I am, in fact, doing something completely new to me at the moment – writing a libretto for an opera!  I’ve been commissioned by the Slovak National Opera, in Bratislava, to work with a Slovak composer, Lubica Cekovska, to write an opera based on Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’.   So from new media to very old media – with full orchestra and singers!  My favourite line so far:  ‘She drinks the poison, and sings, and dies.’

23 thoughts on “Arabian Nights

  1. Welcome back Litlove! Marvelous review and interview. The book sounds wonderful and I am sure will warm me up when the snow is on the ground this winter so please toss my name in the drawing! I am definitley checking out Pullinger’s online work. It will fit in nicely with my digital libraries study 🙂

  2. I’m so happy to see you back — I’ve missed you! I love the sound of this novel, the setting, the characters, the time: all of it. Thanks so much for this review and interview. (And of course — put me in your drawing please.) It’s wonderful, by the way, to see that not all people involved in publishing are freaked out by the digital. She drinks the e-poison and sings — but she does not die!

  3. Welcome back!! Your review is so wonderful, and so interesting, that you have completely seduced me.Please throw my name into the hat (unless you don’t toss things across the pond, in which case, throw my name right back out of the hat). Hope you had a lovely holiday.

  4. Hi Litlove–Welcome back. I hope you had a wonderful break! This sounds like a great book–especially since it’s told from the lady’s maid’s point of view. I sometimes think the servants have a more interesting perspective on things since they get to see it all. I’d love to have my name dropped in the hat as well. Thanks for sharing the interview–I’m curious to see where digital books go–in the way Kate talks about them–with the content matching the format. Lots of interesting things to think of as usual!

  5. Hello, dear blogging friends! I can’t tell you how nice it is to hear from you all again!

    Stefanie – I hadn’t thought of your digital library project, but yes! How neatly it all fits together! This is definitely a warming book, and your name is certainly in that hat, my friend.

    Emily – say no more – you’re in!

    Lily – I missed you too – it’s so good to have you blogging again, and eventually I will catch up with my blog reading – it’s amazing how quickly and radically one falls behind. You made me laugh and laugh with your comment about digital publishing – lol!

    Grad – so lovely to see you too! Consider yourself in the draw.

    ds – the pond is no obstacle to me – you are most definitely in the draw! I can certainly see you enjoying this novel, having read other of your reviews, and I was very impressed by it.

    Anne – so nice to hear from you! You’re in the draw. Hope you’ve been having a lovely summer yourself!

    Lilian – I’m looking forward to getting over to your site and catching up! Your name’s in the hat now!

    Danielle – hello again, my friend! I had never really had much interest in digital books, but I think what Kate’s describing is so interesting and unusual. And I completely agree with you about the servant’s perspective. They got to see a truth of their employer to which he or she was blind, but that wasn’t an insight that got returned! You’re certainly in the draw.

  6. This sounds like a great book. I love the period, and it sounds like Pullinger is offering a great angle on the whole interplay between the employer and the servant class. Please add me to the drawing. Thanks!

  7. Welcome home! What a marvelous review and interview with which to return to blogging!

    I’m a huge fan of the historical novel, particularly if it’s done as well as this one seems to be. So yes, do enter my name in the drawing.

  8. It’s lovely to have you back litlove! I really enjoyed your review of this book and your interview with Kate Pullinger. I loved her book ‘The last time I saw Jane.’ It stayed with me for a long time and had something to do with my decision to become a librarian.

  9. Teresa – yes, I can see you would enjoy this one. I’m delighted to add your name to the draw.

    Becca – it’s lovely to be back and to be greeting all my dear blogging friends again! Yes, I recall your liking for the historical novel. I will certainly put your name in the hat.

    apiece – I’ve missed you too! I’m delighted to have your recommendation as I own a copy of that book and have yet to read it. I’ll certainly be shifting it up the pile now.

  10. Welcome back, Litlove! This book sounds like a whole lot of fun, so throw my name in the drawing. Thank you! The author sounds like a fabulously interesting person, with all kinds of talents and interests. A networked novel? It will be fascinating to see where it goes.

  11. Emily – certainly not too late! I never did say when I’d do the draw – the beginning of next week, probably, and you will be in it.

    Dorothy – thank you! It’s lovely to be back. I agree that Kate has an amazingly broad range of literary projects – it’s very inspiring!

  12. Welcome back, my lovely – hope you’re better? I LOVED Inanimate Alice, and told everyone who made the mistake of standing still that they had to experience it. Both Flight Paths and Mistress of Nothing sound right up my alley too – so yes please, my name in the hat (assuming the penguins have not yet conducted their immensely dignified ceremony! Oh, it’s more fun than the Lottery…marginally better odds, too.)
    PS Is there any chance you might review Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? I’d be fascinated to hear what you thought.

  13. Fugitive! – always so very lovely to hear from you, and I’m getting better, thank you, yes. Thank goodness I have your wonderful peppermint rescue serum – it’s been a godsend. Lol! the penguins still wait in the wings and the hat is more than ready for your entry. And now Wolf Hall is on the list – I always love your recommendations. Hugs, my friend. xoxox

  14. Just by chance a few days ago I posted a quote from Gordon about Sally on my FB page and then found out now that this book had come up. Please put my name in the pot. I live in Egypt and my husband is from Luxor so this sounds like a really interesting book to read. I’m in the States at the moment but this would be great reading for the plane back in two weeks so put my name in the pot please.

  15. Dear Litlove – Fantastic to see such a lot of comments and interest in your blogpost and my book. Thanks again for doing this for me, much appreciated. I’ve been away offline for the past few weeks, so it is great to return and find this. All best to you and your readers – Kate Pullinger

  16. Pingback: Review and Interview on Tales from the Reading Room : Kate Pullinger

  17. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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