I’m still in a bit of a fog, book-lagged not jet-lagged, after finishing In the Eye of the Sun, an extraordinary novel by Ahdaf Soueif. (It was published in 1992, then reissued in paperback in 2000, following the success of her subsequent very engaging book The Map of Love.) What swept me up? Well the story, for one, but even more, the way she tells it, the intimacy of detail about the feelings and thoughts of Alsya, the heroine and main narrator. She’s Egyptian, young, educated, ambitious. Through her we enter a world of young men and women who are trying to find their way personally, sexually, and professionally in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. So it’s a coming-of-age story at one level, set in a world both familiar (the mind of an educated young woman in the late 20th century) and unfamiliar (who is Egyptian). The backdrop is the history and politics of Egypt between 1948 and 1980 and the cultural expectations Alsya and her friends are born into.
All this sounds heavy perhaps. But it’s not. The book takes us so deftly into the hesitations and anxieties of Alsya that we feel and we live her sense of uncertainty, her anguish, and her confidence.
I’ve come reeling out the other end of the book still carrying the sights and scents of her world in my head, and hearing the echoes of the voices of her friends and family. And now I want to find other writing by Ahdaf Soueif. (I loved The Map of Love but this first book, perhaps because it is an intensely lived roman-a-clef, is even more memorable.)
If you have any curiosity about modern Egypt, or about women, do read it.
I find myself remembering how I felt at age 20 when I read Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. It’s a novel by a woman and about a woman. It hit me hard. I felt that it spoke to me. And that was because in the early 1970’s I had come across very little modern fiction written by women. The lovely familiarity of a woman’s point of view was unknown to me, almost. Then I discovered Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, and her wonderful Summer Before the Dark, as well as work by other novelists who are women, and plunged in. I have the same sense of fresh discovery with this book.
Another discovery for me are two other books, both by women, both transporting and unexpected. The first is The House in Clewe Street by Mary Lavin. She’s a well-known (but not by me until now) Irish novelist who writes intuitively and beautifully abut characters living in the narrow constraints of middle-class village life in early 20th century Ireland. The edition I read was published in the oh-so-rewarding Virago series. It took me into a world I hadn’t known about much, except to the extent that it reminds me of the tight attitudes of several of my Scottish great-aunts. Now to find more by Mary Lavin.
And the second (also a Virago edition) is by Olivia Manning. I know only her best-known books, two trios of novels: the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy, all engaging and memorable must-reads. (In the trilogy novels we see events through the eyes of a young Englishwoman who, at the start of the Balkan trilogy, is living in Bucharest and by the end of the Levant trilogy and the end of the war is in Egypt.)
But this Olivia Manning book predates the trilogies. It’s called The Doves of Venus and is set in England, mostly London, in the late nineteen-thirties. It’s a kind of coming-of-age slice of two years in the life of a young woman named Ellie, who is admirably determined to make her way on her own in London. She’s naïve, optimistic, and very open. We come to know an appealing (and sometimes appalling) cast of characters and their lives in prewar England, and we watch Ellie navigate the complexities of growing up. What makes the book so strong? There’s the writing, clear and natural-seeming, but without a redundant word or superficial phrase. And then there’s the almost cinematographic sense of being taken into another world. Terrific.
I feel as if I’ve just come away from weeks of feasting. I’m sated, a little dazed, still reflecting on the aromas, flavours, textures, and colours of all that I’ve experienced in reading these three novels. And I am hesitant to start another book for the moment. I think I need more digesting time, so that the echoes and insights in the books have more time to ripple onward in my head, consciously and subconsciously.
I also find myself wondering at the magic that black marks on the page can create in my mind’s eye. How can I be sitting still in a room somewhere, anywhere, and yet have all these extraordinary worlds, images, insights, brought to life for me? (This is really a question for philosophers as well as for readers.)
Apart from being in a post-reading daze, I am also feeling grateful. For I can’t think of anything more wonderful than discovering a good book and having the time and capacity to read…