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

Sunday, May 07, 2017

2017/52-4: The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun, The Bright and Morning Star -- Rosemary Harris

The pyramids were almost as white by night as by day. They burned with a malignant whiteness barely distinguishable from a white sky. They had a fierce beauty, fed by what lay around them: hundreds of thousands of men had toiled all day in the burning eye of the sun to raise them, and been worn and thirsty; and many had died. Their bones lay beneath the desert. Great kings had laid them there: the bones of the labourers, white, and buried in a gold casing of sand, near the bones of the kings encased in gold, buried in a white casing of stone. And in the night the bones of the buried men and the bones of the kings help speech together. [The Moon in the Cloud, page 147]
Reread, because the Amelia Peabody books made me yearn for some quality fiction set in Ancient Egypt. I adored these books as a child and am pleased to report that they are just as enjoyable some decades later. And I was happy to see Barbara Mertz' Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

In The Moon in the Cloud, Reuben, a Canaanite animal tamer, is sent by Noah's son Ham to retrieve a cat and two lions from Kemi (Egypt). Reuben is enslaved, and becomes the musician of the (imaginary) Pharoah Merenkere: Reuben escapes during a riot, with the help of a friendly tomb-robber, and fulfils his quest.

The Shadow on the Sun is the darkest, and I think weakest, of the trilogy. It focuses on Meri-Mekhmet, who is courted by a mysterious young man but rejects him when he turns out to have a wife and multiple concubines. She is, in turn, courted by the Prince of Punt, who abducts her. Reuben and his cat Cefalu, back in Egypt with Reuben's wife Thamar, become involved.

On rereading I found the characterisation of the Prince of Punt and his people rather racist, and Reuben's victory trivial and hastily described. Still, some lovely scenes in the Chamberlain's water garden and the King's palace, and on the waterfront of Menofer.

The Bright and Morning Star focusses on the children of previous books' protagonists. Merenkere's children -- Ta-Thata and Sinuhe -- are, of course, due to be married to one another. Neither is especially keen on the idea, and Sinuhe's tutor, the priest No-Hotep, has plans of his own. Ta-Thata's friend, the Chief Royal Architect Hekhti, becomes involved in the treatment of Reuben and Thamar's son Sadhi, who is deaf and dumb.

These novels (published in the late 1960s / early 1970s) don't read like modern children's books. The vocabulary is quite advanced, some weighty concepts are explored, and Harris isn't afraid to kill off her characters. There are multiple plot strands, elements whose significance isn't spelt out but left for the reader to deduce, and characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly villainous. (The King behaves very badly when rejected, for example.) And while the novels do, technically, feature 'talking animals', this is on the basis that their human associates understand their body language, rather than the animals speaking any form of human language.

A lovely reread: I appreciate the evocation of ancient Egypt more now than I did as a child.

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