No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, March 01, 2010

2010/22: Dreamers of the Day -- Mary Doria Russell

If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel -- by itself and by ourselves -- forces us to leave our old lives behind. Travel can overcome habitual resistance and set the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction. On foreign soil, desires -- denied, policed, constrained at home -- can be unbound. What lies beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult. (p. 138)

At the end of the First World War Agnes Shanklin is 38 and certain that all the big questions of her life have been answered: she'll remain unmarried, carry on teaching, eventually move back home to look after her domineering mother in her old age. Then comes the flu epidemic, and Agnes loses her whole family and gains a substantial inheritance. Suddenly, there's nothing to stop her doing ... what?

At a seance (just in case she can hear the voices of her dead again) Agnes encounters, apparently, the spirit of Mark Twain, who advises her to travel to Egypt. (Coincidentally, the medium's gentleman friend runs a travel agency just down the hall.) Accompanied only by her Dachshund Rosie, Agnes sets off for Cairo: and finds herself swept up in a milieu of charismatic political movers and shakers -- T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and some fellow named Churchill. Though ignorant of the issues affecting the Arab world, Agnes is neither stupid nor shy, and ends up as sounding-board and Voice of Reason to her new friends. While she learns about the history and religion of the region and witnesses the shaping of the modern Middle East, Agnes also learns a great deal about herself (and her relationship with her mother), and incidentally falls in love.

Dreamers of the Day (the title is from Lawrence: the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible) is beautifully written and impeccably researched: I'd expected no less. But it didn't engage me the way Russell's other novels have done: too much information about the politics and the political process, not enough engagement with the characters. Agnes is fascinated by Lawrence's charisma and charm, but he is not the focus of the novel: if anyone is, it's Agnes herself. I wonder if earlier shades of this Lawrence appear in Emilio Sandoz (of Lawrence's experience of rape: some say it never happened as he described it, but something awful did: it scarred him deeply (p. 241)). And Agnes' situation as she tells her story is vague and indeterminate: she doesn't understand it herself, and it seems as though the sole reason for her persistence is to lecture the present-day reader on the machinations that underlie the political tensions of the twenty-first century.

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