Set in 1911 British East Africa, a murder entangles a cross-section of expatriate and local characters into a complex but well constructed whodunit. And we get a love story as a bonus. Beyond the murder mystery and romance, Ms. Alfieri also illustrates the consequences of universal social ills and the challenges of those who must navigate through them.
I will leave the specifics for you to discover since I do not wish to slip into spoilers.
But, if you ask me, this book cries out to be expanded to film. Think of the scenery! The costumes! The culture and character contrasts! The discovery of dark secrets and passions! This could be both grand entertainment and worthy of critical acclaim.
Wouldn’t it be great to see some serious money poured into this project rather than another Transformers rehash?
Dare we hope?
When Ms. Alfieri has a break in her book promotion schedule and writing her next tale, maybe we can get her back here for another interview.
Have you read Strange Gods yet? Do you have any questions you would like me to ask of her? What do you think about putting it on the big screen?
In the meantime, I am observing certain recurring themes in my Long Ago & Far Awayreading. I will explore those in a near-future post.
Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of theCleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.
Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.
I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.
I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.
Three areas of particular note:
1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.
And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.
2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.
3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.
I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?
Lily of the Nile: Recommended
If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:
It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?
The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?
It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.
I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.
That was in 1993.
My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)
Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!
About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.
What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.
I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?
This was originally posted to my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August 2013. I thought I should include it on this site since it explains how I came to this adventure:
Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.
But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”
I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.
My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?
Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel: Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.
In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.
From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.
So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.
Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.
Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.
I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.
It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.
And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.
River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)
I have mentioned before that I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevents me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended – a deliberate unfolding of information and events.
I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was an historical fiction set in WWII Penang, Malaysia – nothing more. I was excited about it because I spent four years across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra and made a brief visited to Penang while in the region. I suspected the book would have a Chinese focus because the author’s name indicates a Chinese heritage. (Malaysia is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.) I hoped though that there would be enough Malay environment to feed my hunger for something familiar but rare in literary resources.
Unfortunately for me, The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese and Japanese cultures. Other than the tropical weather and interspersed Malay words and food, there is little of ethnic Malay culture here.
More importantly, this book is driven by a deep psychological study of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age teenage boy. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear but I just could not enter into it.
Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. That intrigued me enough to keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first person narrative. I didn’t like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension – knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way – and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.
I couldn’t identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. (To be clear, this is emotional and cultural seduction, not physical.) I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it didn’t do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.
I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages towards the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me put the book down.
But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists – another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. The only other English language fiction I have ever read placed there is Clavell’s King Rat. (Oh, WOW, what a story!) And it is, again, about the intersection of Westerners and their Japanese oppressors with nothing of the Malay context other than a few locations, words and food references. I will also read Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a wonderful word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.
This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly this book is a great read to the right audience.
If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese Malay or Japanese culture or martial arts and beautiful word-crafting – recommended.
If you want Malay culture or action adventure – not so much.
Next up: River God – Wilbur Smith (This is my first Wilber Smith read – as usual, starting with zero info ahead of time. Already fun.)
As I mentioned here, I was tossed a great independent adjuster gig and so I’ve been at that for 25 days running. I leave the house at 8:15am and return around 8:30pm – seven days a week. It doesn’t leave much time for painting or writing. My hair is becoming an over-grown mop and the dust bunnies are staging a coup.
I am, however, working towards a plan in which I spend a few minutes in the wee hours of the morning painting some pieces for display and, hopefully, sale, at my booth in the Avonlea Antiques mall. So far the plan has been thwarted by electrical failures and dirty litter boxes but I am zeroing in on the target.
Last fall I spent an afternoon wandering around downtown Jacksonville taking pictures of architectural details. I have culled some decorative motifs that I will paint as trompe l’oeil panels and canvases. I can’t wait to get started. I will post the results once I am finally under way. I just have to convince the dust bunnies to let me down into the basement where I have set up a work table. Then I will paint from 5:30-6:30am while enjoying my tea and ignoring the siren call of the neglected laundry.
One purpose of this blog is for recording observations on the nitty-gritty of writing.
I am currently reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain – longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. As I picked up the book this afternoon, a few paragraphs in Chapter 6 stood out as worthy of a little dissection.
The text reads as follows:
We walked to the temple near her house. The crowd was thin, as it was still a few days before the actual festival. We entered the grounds of the temple and walked past the stone statues of snarling, serpentine dragons and mythical birdmen, all painted in brilliant hues of turquoise, red, blue, and green.
The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon. Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif. We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, where a sign in English warned: “Beware of The Thiefs!” Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.
I wish I could scribble lines and arrows to explain my thoughts but I will try to break this apart with text.
I have included the first paragraph to show the context of the second: that the writing is in first person and that the next paragraph takes place during some activity of the Point of View character.
So, to pick apart the main paragraph:
The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, . . .
This one and one-half sentence stretch is straight exposition. But it sneaks in without feeling like author intrusion because the reader already knows that the POV character is familiar with the building, and so, can believably bring this information to mind. Being in the first person, there is a sense of narration to the text which allows retelling by the POV character, so exposition becomes part of the storytelling.
But that’s all there is. Just one and one-half sentences of backstory. It must have been tempting to run on with more historical information about the temple’s history, etc. But instead, the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence and the next one: . . . it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon. Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif. . . — describe the environment presently experienced by the POV character and anchors the observations in the here and now. It is informational but it feels more like a sensory perception.
Next we are right back to the movement or actionof the characters: We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, . . . — descriptive detail tied to the moment’s movement and, therefore, sensory rather than intrusive telling.
Finally, Mr. Eng ties the descriptive detail — . . . where a sign in English warned: “Beware of The Thiefs!” . . . to a wonderful character expression in, Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.
There is also the feeling of the paragraph going from a wide to a telescopic lense focus: wide angle for the bit of backstory, zooming in on the general description and drawing closer to follow the characters’ specific movement and then the close-up of Aunt Yu Mei.
I have no idea how conscious Mr. Eng was of writing technique while composing this paragraph – whether it was deliberate and hard won or flowed subconsciously from a well practiced craft, but it is fun to pick apart and shows there is much to be gained in a few sentences.
I’ve been meaning to start a Resources page for this blog and will do so tonight.
But first, I want to highlight The History of Byzantium Podcast as it is a rich source of information as well as entertainment for treadmill duty or long drives up I95. I am partial to it since the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire are my current focus, but I am convinced any lover of history will find them fascinating.
The blog posts include imagery, links to maps and to the related Facebook and Twitter sites. A few episodes are for sale – $5.00 – in order for the podcast’s creator, Robin Pierson, to help fund his otherwise voluntary effort. At this writing, the collection is up to 42 podcasts, the last of which covers AD 606-608.
Mr. Pierson began this project with the intent of continuing the efforts of Mike Duncan’s, The History of Rome podcasts – which started in July 2007 and ran to 179 episodes! I have linked to the first post/podcast, so you can start at the beginning.
Both of these sites have links to bibliographies and additional history podcasts.
Please let me know if you enjoy them or if you have other resources for our new Resource Page.
—- I will build a Resources Page for this site as well.