Review: The Mistress of Nothing

From the Publisher: Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London society. But when her debilitating tuberculosis means exile, she and her devoted lady's maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt. It is Sally who describes, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation, the odd menage (marshalled by the resourceful Omar) that travels down the Nile to a new life in Luxor. When Lady Duff Gordon undoes her stays and takes to native dress, throwing herself into weekly salons, language lessons and excursions to the tombs, Sally too adapts to a new world, which affords her heady and heartfelt freedoms never known before. But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill-afford, and when Sally grasps more than her status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.

My Take: The Mistress of Nothing succeeds at many things - subtly exploring 19th century class barriers, heady description of Egypt's climate and society (I could practically feel the intense heat of that sun searing my flesh while reading this) and a fascinating character in Lady Duff Gordon (one part Madame Merle, one part Mrs. Moore). It won the Governor General's award in 2009 so this should come as no surprise.

As I alluded to with the Mrs. Moore reference, there are some striking parallels between this book and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. There is the same outward civility and harmony between the English and the natives until the question of interracial partnership arises and all goes to pot.

These are two different types of books, though - A Passage To India is more interested in the psyche (the echo in the caves that Mrs. Moore hears is a reflection of her discomfort with what's outside the 'norm') and The Mistress of Nothing is more interested in the political climate of the country concerned and the love story. Its scenery is more vibrant, its emotions run more quickly - it's well-done but it feels pulpy at times.

This isn't bad - you'll race through it, it's fully enjoyable. Indeed, this isn't an "Orientalist fantasy", as we're informed on the jacket - Pullinger was given a grant to travel to Egypt to research this book. It feels substantial - there may be pulp but we're not wading into bodice ripper territory by any means.

I did wish, though, that the echo would resonate a bit louder, that we might be taken deeper into the bitter psyche of the conflicted Lady Duff. When I say I wish the book had been a bit weirder, it's because when I get to the point where I'm charmed by a book, I always want it to push back, flip my expectations and be a little less darling. It could be just that earnest Sally is not an intelligent enough narrator to penetrate her layers.


Diane said...

I've never heard of this book, but I am curious to find out to Amazon to check the price :) thanks

B.Kienapple said...

I was fascinated by the depiction of 1860's Egypt. That and the idea of somewhere extremely hot and dry. Sighh.

Michelle said...

I watched the film Cairo Time recently and thought about your review of this book, wondering how a white woman's experience in Egypt would be different 150 years ago.

B.Kienapple said...

Funny you should mention Cairo Time Michelle because I LOVED that movie, probably more than I liked The Mistress of Nothing. In fact I wrote a post called Five Books to Read if You Loved Cairo Time. This harks from before The Mistress of Nothing. Patricia Clarkson was so understated yet full to the brim with suppressed emotion..delicious!

Teddy Rose said...

I think I would really enjoy this book. Thanks so much for reviewing it. a historical in Egypt sounds very appealing to me.


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