Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dangerous men

The sands of historical fiction now take us back into the 20th century, but in a place so steeped in ancient history as to be barely thought of as modern: Egypt, 1921 Egypt to be precise. Where events that took place are still reverberating nearly 100 years later. In Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell plops her heroine, a 40-ish spinster named Agnes Shanklin, amidst the intrigues of the 1921 Cairo Conference -- a post-World-War-I meeting of selected rulers from the Middle East with the British powerbrokers Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence. The national boundaries drawn at that conference, as filtered through Russell's eyes, laid a clear path to our misadventures in Iraq 80 years later, and even to the human disaster currently ongoing in Syria.

But unlike the book that preceded this one, this novel never forgets that it's about Agnes Shanklin. Agnes is the plain (she's a bit cross-eyed), eldest daughter of a withholding and domineering mother. She is leading a sheltered life as a schoolteacher in Cleveland, Ohio when her entire family is killed by the influenza pandemic that swept the world shortly after World War I. Finding herself an heiress (but still hearing the voice of her disapproving mother in her head), she decides to travel to Egypt and Palestine -- where her beloved younger sister spent a few years as a Christian missionary, and where her sister met T.E. Lawrence. When Agnes, along with her beloved dachshund Rosie, arrives in Cairo, she meets Lawrence almost immediately and is taken up (in a condescending way) by the other Englishmen and women there for the Conference. She also meets a handsome German Jew, Karl Weilbacher, to whom she (and Rosie) is almost instantly attracted. Even though Lawrence quietly cautions her about Weilbacher, Agnes continues to welcome his suave advances.

While I enjoyed this book, it really has a schizophrenic feel. Once it's clear that Karl is not a part of the Cairo Conference, Agnes' narration divides into two parts: One where she dines and converses and sees tourist sites with the English and the other where Karl provides commentary on the state of the world outside of the British myopia and shows Agnes the "real" Egypt. The two strands never meet again. And mostly because Agnes' burgeoning romance with Karl is quite frankly a little more interesting than Middle East politics, the latter occasionally gets in the way of the listener who wants to resume the love story.

In addition, Russell takes the historical novelist's task of including what- happened -afterwards to all the real people in the story (as well as the fictional ones) to an interesting place. One that provided the satisfaction that such wrapping up provides, but was also kind of weird. Slight spoiler: We learn fairly early on that Agnes is speaking from the grave, but just where that grave is is pretty original.

Ann Marie Lee narrates the novel. She's awfully good with Agnes' flat Midwestern vowels (ah pronounced more like eh), although I found her production of them somewhat inconsistent. There's a fair number of non-American accents that populate this novel (English, German, Egyptian) which Lee carries off professionally. However, I found the male characters to be pretty much all the same, as their dialogue is delivered in a gravelly low register overlaid with a quiet intensity.  Still she reads the descriptive narrative with variation and appropriate emotion, that of a no-nonsense sensible Ohioan whose world has been knocked off its axis.  

My post title is continuation of a quote from Lawrence's autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that Russell took as her title: "... the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."

[Russell includes this photograph in her novel (p. 156) where she fictitiously places Agnes third from the left.  The copyright page of the book says that this photo lives in the Gertrude Bell Archive from Newcastle University, but I could not find it there. I found it instead at the very informative Clio History site about T.E. Lawrence, linked above. Churchill, Gertrude Bell and Lawrence are to the immediate right of the standing Arab (below the Sphinx's chin).]

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Narrated by Ann Marie Lee
Books on Tape, 2008.  11:28

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