Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
|Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: Agnes and her dog walk into the Cairo conference of 1921 which divided up the Middle East. If you have an interest in the history of the politics of the region and the landscape you'll enjoy this elegant piece of fiction. Recommended.
|Date: March 2008
Agnes Shanklin is forty. Life has not exactly passed her by but she's been dominated by her mother and then loses all her family to the twin scourges of the First World War and the influenza epidemic which followed. Bereft of family and without a job her inheritance allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. This was unusual in 1921 but Agnes wanted to see the places where her sister had lived for many years.
The phrase 'an event which changed history' is over-used but in this case history has had remarkably little to say about a conference which took place in Cairo and which is having repercussions even now. Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell and others gathered at the Semiramis Hotel with the intention of dividing up the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan were created and the fate of the Arab world largely decided by the western representatives. It was into this piece of history that Agnes and her dog walked.
It takes great skill to weave a fictional story into history and make it convincing, particularly when that history involves the politics of the Middle East. Lawrence himself quotes a local saying: If you think you understand Middle Eastern politics, they haven't been explained to you properly. Minor adjustments to fact have been made to accommodate the story but the political background of the book is generally faithful to what happened over eighty years ago.
The basic story is not particularly novel – a charming but rather naïve middle-aged woman takes a big step into the outside world, meets interesting people and falls for the charms of someone rather unsuitable. At the end of it she's definitely wiser. What is unusual is the backdrop and Agnes' story is secondary to the politics.
There is a lot of exposition in the book and unless you have at least a passing interest in Middle Eastern politics this may well not be the book for you. The fictional element aside this is a history and travel book, with extensive discursions by the major players in the Cairo talks and detailed descriptions of landscapes. Just occasionally I found my attention wandering but generally it was well done. The book is carefully, skilfully crafted with some neat twists which could have been twee but were carried off with aplomb.
Good books leave you thinking afterwards and what has struck me is how little we learn from history. Consider …the reason for going to war might be a shameless hoax, but the war itself was real… and then realise that we're not thinking of Iraq but America's entry into the First World War. Wonder too at the political manipulation which persuaded people that war was essential and realise that nothing has changed.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of this book to The Bookbag.
For another fictional view of the Middle East you might like to look at Beaufort by Ron Leshem although this is rather one-sided. If you'd like a fictional look at a real person then you might enjoy The Mmm Girl: Marilyn Monroe by Herself by Tara Hanks.
You can read more book reviews or buy Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell at Amazon.com.
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