Usually when I choose a book to read, I pick a title that has been in the back of my mind for awhile, or I decide on a novel from a specific genre. This time around I had a yen for a historical novel of a shorter length. I recently bought The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger from a book sale and thought that this would fit the bill. Also, for lack of knowledge about the author and the critical reviews, the fact that this book won a Governor General's Literary Award swayed my opinion.
The premise of the book also presented itself as a lure from the first time that I read the short caption on the back cover. The Mistress of Nothing takes place in 1865, and begins in the household of Lady Duff Gordon, a well-connected socialite who makes the heart wrenching decision to travel to Egypt to alleviate her serious health problems. The story is told through the eyes of Gordon's private ladies maid, Sally Naldrett who accompanies her. Both are seasoned, having previously sailed to South Africa on another mission to make a positive difference in Gordon's health. As such, Sally and her mistress do take on the climatic and cultural adjustments with an enthusiasm that more sheltered females of their station would not possess. They adopt Egyptian dress, learn Arabic and live within the Egyptian community rather than just staying within the European quarter of Cairo or Alexandria.
Their ability to integrate into local society is aided by their servant, Omar Haleweh, who joins them in Cairo and provides a go-between in their interactions with Egyptians. Omar becomes indispensable to them, and becomes very dear to both ladies, as they journey the Nile and settle in Luxor (aka Thebes). This closeness with Omar causes events to unfold in a way that Sally never expected, and reveals the true nature of her relationship with her mistress. As a faithful maid and the sole female companion for Lady Duff Gordon, Sally felt that the boundaries that normally exist between servants and their employers had eroded. When her story takes a twist (which I will not reveal), Sally is brought to the realization that those distinctions were very much in place.
This story is based upon the real-life story of Lady Duff Gordon as told through her book, Letters from Egypt. I think that her story is worth telling and, in my opinion, she is the most fascinating character in the book. Though I don't think that Pullinger's prose style is all that poetic in nature with memorable lines which stop you in your tracks, she is a gifted storyteller and that is more the strength of this book. She also does not romanticize Sally's situation in a manner that other authors would be tempted to and I found this touch to be refreshing. The tension between the characters rang true when I try to envision what actually may have taken place. Overall I am pleased that I decided to pull this book off my shelf and it provided me with an interesting look into a unique personal history and a snapshot of Egyptian life.