Sunday, 18 July 2010
Iris Black is living out her final years in a once grand but now decaying Cairo house but her isolated world is turned upside down when her teenage granddaughter, Ruby, appears unexpectedly. Ruby is running away from a personal tragedy and a difficult relationship with her mother. Ruby and Iris haven't seen each other for years the intrusion creates tension and resentment from all in the Cairo household.
However, to avoid being sent back to England Ruby tries to make herself useful and offers to help Iris record her fading memories of Cairo during World War Two, and they develop a strong bond. The two women realise they have a lot in common and Iris relives her dazzling, but ephemeral youth and first love.
The book intertwines the story of the two protagonists, veering between the cosmopolitan life of 1940's Cairo with Iris and Captain Xan Molyneux's romance and the current consuming disappointments of Ruby, a difficult young woman in an alien city, learning about its history, culture and her own abilities. It shows how three generations of women have to learn the difficulties of relationships and the way that love can strengthen or destroy.
The book has beautifully evocative descriptions of Cairo both in the 1940's and now. As a complete Egyptophile, I loved the atmosphere and sharp detail that allowed me to almost smell the seedy back streets and indefinable tang of the desert.
The whole air of the book was claustrophobic and even a bit cold. I can't say that I actually liked anyone really, but I was interested in them and became wrapped up in the events. The character of Iris was well written, she's emotionally removed and brittle which is fitting with the upbringing as a diplomat's daughter, the times she's lived in and her class. She's not a character to warm to, but the influences of minor characters explain her actions and I did want to know learn about her journey. Her ultimately selfish actions and decisions taken after her total devastation are understandable but not excusable and it's easy to see why her stronger affections have to skip a generation to her granddaughter. The ravages of time, her fragility and how her memories are fading and destroying her ability to be a whole person are sad and contrast with her vibrant younger self.
Ruby is introduced as self centred, over indulged brat but she is traumatised by the death of her boyfriend Jas. She grows through the story and is particularly sensitive of her grandmother. The imagery of her holding the cup of Iris's memories is done sympathetically. I couldn't make my mind up about her friendship and developing romance with Ash, it all seemed a bit too convenient for him. Ruby is needy and used to giving herself easily to receive any kind of affection, but I couldn't define his motives and felt it mainly cam down to financial possibilities. However, their relationship does make Ruby realise how materially fortunate she has been when she visits Ash's family home in the City of the Dead.
I found it to be bittersweet and thought provoking, reminiscent in some ways of The English Patient (flashbacks to wartime Cairo, unresolved, untold love story) and thoroughly enjoyed it.