Set against the backdrop of growing social unrest, The Sacred River is an intricate story of three women who travel to Egypt to escape London and are changed by what they encounter there.
Harriet Heron, her mother Louisa and God-fearing Aunt Yael leave London for Alexandria, with plans to go on to Cairo and Luxor.
In this, her second novel, Wendy Wallace succeeds in beautifully evoking both the oppressiveness of the London they leave behind and the mystical beauty of Egypt, with its bright, exuberant colour, rose and gold-tinged air and intense heat.
While much of what the women encounter rings true today, the Egypt described – on the brink of revolt, with a growing nationalist movement resisting extortionate taxes, virtual slave labour and oppression – is a nation under Ottoman rule in the 19th century.
United in their purpose of accompanying Harriet, who must leave London for the sake of her health, the three women are in very different states of mind when they arrive in Egypt in 1882, and react to this new country in very different ways.
On arrival in Alexandria, Yael resolves to stay, while Harriet and Louisa continue their journey. Although she has most reservations about the trip, it’s Yael who ultimately engages with Egyptian people and sees most the poverty and oppression that many endure.
Wallace first visited Egypt in 1980 while in her 20s and “was immediately drawn to the sophistication and complexity of Arab culture,” she says.
It was 30 years later that she began working on the book.
She finished the synopsis at around the same time that the protests in Tunisia began, following the suicide of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi and sparked a wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
“Had the book been politics-free, I might have hesitated to go ahead, but I found fascinating similarities in the aspects of revolution, or people power, or just an upsurge, the sense of having had enough,” says Wallace.
In contrast to her first novel, The Painted Bridge, which was set in an asylum and extremely claustrophobic, Wallace’s second novel is about widening horizons in the early days of mass tourism when travel was made available to a new class of tourist through tour operators like Cooks Tours.
The trip is ostensibly for the sake of the health of Harriet, the youngest member of the group who has always been an invalid because of her asthma. The journey is also inspired by her own desires, which she draws in her own book of spells inspired by the Book of the Dead.
Harriet, a self-taught Egyptologist, wishes to see Thebes before she dies, but also begins to dream of a future as she experiences for the first time what it is to live while at the same time submerging herself in the past.
Louisa, because of a chance encounter during the voyage from England, is too caught up with her past to engage with Egypt. Faced with someone from her past threatening to destroy her by preying on her daughter, Louisa sheds her reserved manners much as she sheds her corsets and other constraints of Victorian society. Being away from England ultimately affords her the freedom to confront what she has hidden from for years.
Yael, who did charity work in London as befitted an unmarried woman interested in social issues, is the one who engages the most with Egypt. Finding that away from home she has much more scope to do what she wants, she finds herself questioning the patriarchal, colonial views of the established church and its focus on outward religious observance and Bible teaching, rather than meeting the needs of a hungry and impoverished people.
In both her novels, Wallace succeeds in creating interesting women characters whose response to the expectations of Victorian England, their own prejudices and the situations they find themselves make for compelling reading.
Wallace skilfully weaves the story, introducing details incidentally that suddenly loom large in the foreground. But it is the political and social unrest when it finally erupts that throws up The Sacred River’s biggest surprise.
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal