Friday, 27 January 2017

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

I am procrastinating on starting this review, because it's one of those books I struggle to write about. If there's lots to love, I am effusive. If there's lots to hate, I rant. Then there are those books that are just fine, but that's all they seem to be, and you try to sit down to find enough words to make up a review worth writing, and they prove to be elusive little buggers.

Right. So. This is a book. It is pretty good. I am writing short sentences because it's hard to think of anything longer. Try harder, Megan.

Fine. This is historical fiction about Lady Duff Gordon, who travelled from England to Egypt to try to prolong her life when she had what appears to be tuberculosis, although neither that nor consumption are ever spoken by name. The dry hot air is expected to help whereas England's damp climate exacerbates her disease. Her faithful ladies' maid Sally travels with her, and the two enjoy life in Egypt, dressing with less concern for European fashion than other foreign visitors, Lady Gordon adopting Egyptian men's clothes, and Sally women's.

It is not, however, a story of a relationship between the two, but rather Sally's love affair with Lady Gordon's Egyptian manservant, and the consequent difficulties, including being dismissed immediately when Lady Gordon finds out Sally is pregnant. (To be precise, she finds out when Sally goes into labour.)

There are things that Pullinger does right. She has obviously researched her subjects (based on real people) and time period well, but does not data dump. I have a pet peeve when writers end up showing all their research instead of synthesizing it organically into their books. So, no problems there.

That's kind of a negative recommendation - this book doesn't do something that irritates me. And the thing is, there's nothing wrong with it! The story didn't annoy me, the characters were fine, the setting well done. But also the story didn't really grab me, the characters didn't weasel their way into my affections. I didn't mind reading this, but I was never champing at the bit to get back to it.

I think it's because the pacing feels so slow. I get that there's not a ton of exterior incident (although they are there during some fairly significant riots and dissatisfaction), but does that mean that domestic incident needs to be lacking as well?

The feeling of lassitude, of long days with not much happening - and more so, that even when exciting things are written about, they aren't done so in a manner to incite excitement. The promise of riots coming near didn't make me worried, the epidemic that sweeps through their area and Sally and Lady Duff Gordon end up nursing people through is written about as calmly as long days of nothing much happening.

If you want something pleasant, and enjoy historical fiction, this might be the book for you. I like the books I read to be a little more keen.

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