(Self) Discovery in Colonial Egypt

The Sacred River: A Novel, by Wendy Wallace, (Scribner), 304 pages

I requested an electronic ARC of Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River because the story seemed so suited to my interests. The book opens in London, but is set primarily in British-controlled Egypt during the early 20th Century—a time of political unrest and archaeological discovery. What I hadn’t realized was that Wendy Wallace is also the author of one of my favorite books from 2012, The Painted Bridge, and I found The Sacred River every bit as enjoyable as that earlier work.

What Wallace writes is almost romance. Almost. But with more intellectual richness and with resolutions that are more complicated than the usual heterosexual coupling such books end with. Yes, in each book a man and a woman emerge as a couple, but that coupling isn’t the purpose that drives them. Instead, they come together because of shared interests or intellectual pursuits—and the women have as much substance in this area as the men do.

The Sacred River focuses on three women: a mother, Louisa; her sister-in-law, Yael; and Louisa’s daughter, Harriet. Harriet, now in her early twenties, is consumptive. She’s spent her years as an invalid studying texts on ancient Egypt, particularly hieroglyphs, and convinces her doctor to tell her parents that travel to Egypt is essential for her health. So Louisa and Harriet, accompanied by the spinster, Yael, set sail.

As it turns out, Egypt is good for Harriet’s health, easing her breathing and also giving her life a sense of purpose that it’s lacked before. Harriet is able to participate in archaeological work, sketching paintings and glyphs in a recently discovered tomb. Yael also finds a new sense of purpose in Egypt, one suited to her Christian beliefs and her inherent feminism. Louisa, meanwhile, is confronted with a past that, as a cover copy-writer might put it, she’d “prefer to keep buried.” The paths the women take are very different, giving the book a satisfying breadth of scope.

For the most part, the Egypt readers see is the Egypt of British colonialism. Egyptians themselves are background figures, helpful servants or vaguely menacing strangers. But by the book’s end, as political resistance to British rule increases, readers are given a sense of the anti-colonial struggle that will shake the country in years to come.

The Sacred River is one of those wonderful reads combining lyricism, self-realization, and historical reality in a combination that delights throughout. If you have time for a summer read, I can’t imagine a better recommendation than The Sacred River. This book will broaden your horizons as the heroines work to broaden their own.