Ahdaf Soueif‘s 1999 Booker Prize shortlister (J. M. Coetzee took his second Booker with Disgrace that year) is a cross-cultural, cross-historical, cross-generational saga about two pairs of lovers a century apart. While Map traverses time, the story’s ‘now’ is 1997 Egypt … pre-9/11, pre-Tahrir Square which, read in 2011, adds another compelling layer to its already epic scope.
Soueif makes the intriguing choice to narrate the lovers’ courtships with a fifth, omniscient voice: Amal, recently separated from her British husband, leaves her London life to return to her native Egypt. At the behest of her world-famous, globe-trotting conductor brother ‘Omar, Amal is visited by Isabel, an American journalist from New York. Isabel arrives with a large trunk filled with letters, diaries, artifacts, memories that once belonged to a bold Englishwoman, Lady Anna Winterbourne, who outlived her own riveting love story.
Just before the turn of the 20th century, Lady Anna arrived in Cairo as a grieving widow, a member of the British elite in colonial Egypt. Unwilling to accept the limitations of being female, she donned men’s clothing to expand her explorations. Her independence led to mistaken abduction, which surprisingly led her to the gallant (and powerful) Sharif, the love of her life. The remnants of her Egyptian adventures preserved in that leather trunk will bring together her great-granddaughter Isabel with her beloved ‘Omar.
“[T]his is not my story,” Amal insists, and yet she immediately recognizes both pairs of lovers: “… if I come into [the story] at all, it is only as my own grandmother did a hundred years ago, when she told the story of her brother’s love.”
The core of Soueif’s novel is undoubtedly Anna and Sharif’s defiant relationship, which Soueif infuses with captivating details, judiciously revealed to keep the reader turning the pages. Her attempts, however, to weave in the politics then and now, feel clumsily intrusive. Without minimizing the grave importance of historical context – Anna and Sharif’s love story surely would not have been nearly as memorable without the tumultuous political backdrop – the combination of politics and romance stalls more often than not. That said, “unpacked, unwrapped, unravelled” through Amal’s fifth lens, Anna and Sharif and Isabel and ‘Omar prove to be an enigmatic foursome.