Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
by Enid Shomer

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

This is a work of fiction inspired by real people. Though I have hewed close to the facts, I have also taken liberties with them. [...] Flaubert and Nightingale did indeed tour Egypt at the same moment with nearly identical itineraries, but as far as we know, they never met. However, the historical record does suggest that they glimpsed each other in November 1849 while being towed through the Mahmoudieh Canal from Alexandria to Cairo. (449)
In her debut novel, Enid Shomer (who has previously published three collections of poetry and two of short stories) imagines what might have happened if a 28 year-old Gustave Flaubert met and became friendly with a 29 year-old Florence Nightingale while each was traveling in Egypt in 1849/1850.

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a character driven story told alternatively from the perspectives of the novel's two protagonists. It is a bit of a slow read, but that is almost to be expected from a book focused more on the internal lives of its protagonists than on its plot.

Nightingale, Flaubert, and the novel's secondary characters are well-drawn1 and Shomer plays Nightingale and Flaubert's similarities and dissimilarities against each other to great effect.  The timing of the pair's parallel trips to Egypt, before either of them had begun the work for which they'd become famous, was particularly fortuitous and Shomer deserves much credit for realizing the potential for a double coming-of-age story and for executing it so well.  
  1. While I was reading the novel I found Nightingale's maid's backstory unnecessarily odd, but I was happy to learn in "Acknowledgements, Sources, and a Note" that it was based on an actual contemporary relationship, that of Hannah Cullwick (as detailed in The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant), rather than a flight of fancy.

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