Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

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This tells the story of Sally Naldrett, lady's maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon in the late nineteenth century. As a last resort to cure her mistress's consumption it is decided that Sally and Lady Duff Gordon will go to Egypt. Due to lack of money, the two women go alone. Egypt is a revelation to them both and although the move is initially shocking, the introduction of dragoman Omar allows them to settle and they "go native". They are less impressed with the ancient sites but enthusiastically embrace the Egyptian culture, its language and people; they encapsulate the move away from the restrictive expectations of the Frangi society but adopting traditional Egyptian dress.

Sally is loyal and proud to serve her mistress, but as time goes on and they settle in Luxor, they become further removed from their previous lives and the relationship changes. The household becomes more relaxed, Lady Duff Gordon becomes involves with local dignitaries and writes home about the unfair plight of the fellahin. Omar proves to be chameleon-like, with his quick ability to take on new roles within the household, including becoming Sally's first lover. On discovering their relationship, Lady Duff Gordon's retribution is terrible for Sally and made more painful by the continued support and affection she shows towards Omar. Sally struggles to cope with her rejection and seeks a new life whilst staying in her new adoptive land.

I hate to admit (being a total Egyptophile!) that I wasn't aware that this was based on real people and circumstances until I started reading the book...my only excuse is that I'm an Ancient Egypt fanatic!! Pullinger does a beautiful job of evoking Egypt in the 1860s and I really wanted to love the book, however, I felt a bit let down by it, mainly because I didn't really get deep enough into the characters to understand their motives.
The first section was probably the most enjoyable. Sally is full of enthusiasm and loyalty; the novelty of a new start in Egypt is engaging and the descriptions interesting. However, Sally isn't a strong personality and her passivity means that she is always on the sidelines, and in the second half of the book, many events are described to her by other minor characters. Once she starts her affair with Omar, my interest drifted off...mainly as I couldn't understand why he behaved the way he did...was it love? Manipulation? He was so thinly drawn it was difficult to see what he wanted to achieve. Why was he so obsessed with maintaining his position with Lady Duff Gordon at the expense of his own family and Sally? Was he simply weak and overawed by his mistress or was there a master plan?
I also couldn't reconcile Lady Duff Gordon's treatment of Sally when she was her only link to her family in England and showed such empathy in other situations. It didn't gel and there was insufficient detail to make it work.
So, overall, it had interesting points and I loved sections of it, but fell a bit flat for me.