THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING by Kate Pullinger

Book Quote:

“As with the stays and the heavy English clothes I had kept wearing, washing, mending and wearing again, it had not occurred to me to do otherwise. I am accustomed to doing as I am told; to do otherwise would be frightening.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (MAR 25, 2011)

Winner of the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award, Pullinger’s first novel to be published by a US publisher calls on the real-life characters of the consumptive Lady Duff Gordon and her faithful maid Sally to tell a story of adventure, passion and class in the 19th century.

Although the reason behind their journey is not a happy one – Lady Duff Gordon’s failing health – narrator Sally is exuberant. Egypt has always held her imagination and, a confirmed spinster at 30, devoted to her mistress, she is excited to be out of dull England and surrounded by an exotic culture.

From the book’s first line, we know that Sally has a rude awakening: “The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human.”

“She loved me, there’s no question of that, and I knew it and had felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet.”


But we also know she soldiers on: “Once she cast me out, she could no longer control me. No.”

Sally’s transgression is to fall in love and worse, have a child. The man is their dragoman – interpreter, guide, general factotum – an Egyptian with a wife and young daughter. As they travel from Alexandria to Cairo and up the Nile to Luxor (“The name itself felt warm in my mouth.”), Sally drinks it all in.

Her narration makes everything fresh and colorful and Pullinger incorporates the details of domestic life seamlessly into the excitement of it all. Sally is enchanted by the lemon tree in the garden, the thick black cane syrup they put in their tea, the inactivity of Ramadan, the swaths of blue linen drying above the streets, even the suffocating heat of summer.

Lady Duff’s impending betrayal of Sally looms over the narrative, but Pullinger’s prose is graceful and vivid and Sally’s growing strength provides a counterpoint as she settles deeper into Egyptian ways. As she grows happier and ever more intimate with her mistress, she mistakes Lady Duff’s increasing familiarity for real friendship. Sally’s error is in believing that exchanging restrictive English clothes for flowing Egyptian garb means that Lady Duff has also cast off restrictive British class distinctions, which she certainly has not.

The author anchors her characters in their time and the story savors its contrasts – culture, gender, class, health and sickness, independence and dependence – but subtly. An evocative story.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Touchstone (January 4, 2011)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Kate Pullinger
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

A Little Stranger

Bibliography:

With Jane Campion:


March 25, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Egypt, Facing History, y Award Winning Author

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