‘Shadows on the Nile’ by Kate Furnivall
I could write a book unto itself about dodgy books I’ve read merely because of a passing relation to Egypt of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On this list, I would include:
- Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing
- Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars
- Pat Shipman’s To the Heart of the Nile
- Elizabeth Peters’ The Laughter of Dead Kings (and dare I add all books in her much-beloved Amelia Peabody series after He Shall Thunder in the Sky)
And now, with great fanfare, let us add Kate Furnivall’s Shadows on the Nile to their esteemed company!
Basically, the book tells the story of our Fearless Heroine (Jessie) as she tries to track down her missing Egyptologist brother. Of course, this almost immediately throws her in the path of “dashing and impoverished aristocrat, Sir Montague Chamford,” who inexplicably joins her on her quest all the way to the bloody deserts outside of Luxor.
Oh, and she has a secret autistic brother who has been locked away and forgotten in some asylum by her almost impossibly cruel parents. Oh, and she’s an artist who lives with a lady saxophonist. Oh, and fascism’s on the rise. Also, there’s social unrest at home and abroad. And workers are rioting and subsequently being brutally attacked by police. And, just for some good old-fashioned character development, she has a cat. (Because, obviously, a cat = character development.) Also, she has inexplicably picked up expert-level Egyptological expertise from her brother, evidently through some kind of osmosis.
Needless to say, this book is trying to be a great many things and, I regret to say, fails on most fronts. I think mostly it’s trying to be a serious family drama with a banal missing person mystery (founded mostly on the paranoia and unaddressed psychological malaise of our Fearless Heroine) at its forefront.
The two threads clash horribly and frequently, as Jessie bounces between her insane sleuthing and her cold ancestral home. There’s probably a darker and more interesting story to be told just about Jessie’s parents (spoiler alert: they’re fascists, as it turns out, who had a program of adopting little blonde children in an attempt to experiment with creating a perfect Master Race), but this information is relegated to page number 402 of 422 pages. It’s almost an afterthought and introduces a whole other villainy to a story that you thought had just dispensed with the “actual” villain. At least the villain from the missing person(s) case part of the story. Remember that part?
Crammed into the family drama/missing person situation is a heavy dose of the kind of inexplicable romance usually found in the pages of the worst possible romance novels. Not only is there no particular build in terms of our Fearless Heroine’s relationship with the Dashing, Impecunious Sir Montague “Call me Monty” Chamford (they fall conveniently In Love about halfway through and spend the rest of the book alternately making passionate love and worrying themselves sick about the other one, who has inevitably done something foolish), but the creation and constant reference to serious obstacles which could have made for meaty conflict are subsequently brushed aside, also in the final pages.
To add to my litany of frustrations with this book, it had all the makings of something truly interesting. Setting aside the bizarre fascism subplot, the Egypt part of the story tiptoes into the conflict between Egyptian Nationalists and a British Empire slowly dying, but unwilling to let go of the past. I’m used to studying and reading about Egypt at the height of British imperialism in the nineteenth century, which is plenty problematic, but this later period felt even more crackling and challenging.
It’s a subject that author Kate Furnivall merely brushes without delving into too deeply. Mainly, the conflict just seems to be a source of mysterious and uniformly menacing “Arabs” who pop up frequently and threaten/abduct/injure our Fearless Heroine and/or Dashing, Impecunious Monty. Very disappointing.
I could easily go on complaining about this book, but there’s hardly a point. This wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read about historical Egypt, but it was far from the best. (For those looking for recommendations, Enid Shomer’s Twelve Rooms on the Nile was excellent and I cannot resists a plug for Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, which I will always and forever love.)
On the bright side, Shadows on the Nile is a quick read and, even if our Fearless Heroine is a bit of a drag, her secret autistic brother is fascinating and alternates narrator duties with Jessie and Monty. And there’s always the fun of pondering the novel that might have been if Furnivall had just focused one thing (ANY OF THEM WOULD BE FINE) or weaved together her disparate subjects and places more fluidly.
I, meanwhile, will continue my quest for books that live up the Shomer/Peters Gold Standard of Novels About Egypt. Recommendations always accepted.