Little Egypt is a manor house in decline. It is all that remains of an estate sold piecemeal first to fund exploration and excavation in Egypt and then to fund the excavation fall-out. Set in the brief gap between the world wars, and in modern day England, Little Egypt follows the life of Isis, or Sisi as she later calls herself, as she lives under the burden of her parents’ obsession with Ancient Egypt. Hers is a childhood of parental and peer absence, but for her twin brother Osiris who is just as obsessed with Egypt as his parents. Despite frequent visits from their mother’s shell-shocked twin brother, their only real carer is Mary, the housekeeper. When Mary too falls foul of ancient obsessions, Little Egypt and all its secrets become Isis’ responsibility.
I wanted to really like this novel. My parents lived in Egypt for five years when I was in my early teens and I have a hugely sentimental love of the country. I did really enjoy the passages set in Egypt and felt the heat, the sandy, dusty grittiness of everything, and the young person’s confusion over poverty and stray dogs, mixed with the strange faith that adults know better and will navigate you through a world you do not understand. It came as no surprise that an awakening to adult sexuality and responsibility began in Egypt.
Set in beautiful contrast to ancient Egyptian glamour was the older Sisi’s love of consumer gaudiness. Part of the estate was sold to a supermarket chain and for Sisi it becomes a lifeline to the modern world.
However, I wasn’t always happy with the divisions between the past and present. It was almost too neat to wipe away the quiet uneventfulness of the years in-between childhood and old age. It also made the older woman’s forgetfulness divisive, given that we could fill in her memory losses for her. It gave question to Sisi’s reliability in a way that was not supported by the rest of the novel.
I did enjoy reading Little Egypt, but felt frustrated by it because I felt the author had more to give. I wanted to breathe the characters and their experiences, I wanted to feel my gut wrench alongside theirs, but I was somehow distanced from them. Perhaps it is the ease of arranging a novel in a way that avoids all but the most salient of moments? I know any creative writing or literature teacher would tell you that choosing the salient moments is what good writing is all about, and it is true that structure is half of the business, but there is more to it than that and in the end the heart of the novel didn’t beat loudly enough in my ears. What really did happen to Isis in that tomb? My response to the novel is undoubtedly personal and it wouldn’t put me off reading another of Lesley Glaister’s novels, I just have a longing for raw edges, and I would have liked a few more in Little Egypt. Perhaps I like my dark secrets to be darker?! If you don’t, then Little Egypt is probably the well-crafted, compelling novel for you.
Next week I’m reading Beauty by Sarah Pinborough followed by The Wrath of Napolo by Steve Chimombo, Feral Youth by Poly Courtney and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.