Tuesday, April 1, 2008
It is hard to say why Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell is so unsatisfying. It has definite moments of entertainment, a few evocative passages, and a couple of really interesting story ideas.
The idea of a novel spun out of the Cairo Peace Conference is a great one. In 1921, luminaries like Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met in Cairo to create the modern Middle East. Narrator Agnes Shanklin gets caught up in history and lives, or dies, to tell us about it.
But after the initial premise, the book falters. For one thing, the story of the historic events in Cairo are flanked by lengthy sections that have nothing to do with Britain’s “Great Game” in the Middle East: the great influenza that leaves Agnes an heiress on the front end and the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression on the back end. These events and eras, worthy of novels of their own, are given short shrift and merely distract from the main events that get lost in the middle.
For another, the book does not explore its main theme in any detail. It is well researched in peripheral details, such as what Lawrence of Arabia wore, or what it is like to ride a camel, but the intricate workings of the Peace Conference and the complex facets of Britain’s foreign policy following World War I are glossed over. Other than to make the facile point that what happened in Cairo in 1921 greatly affects the Middle East we face today, the book does not delve into particulars. Russell spends more time on the heroine’s wardrobe and the bathroom habits of her dog than on the supposedly central international maneuverings.
Finally, the narrative gimmick is annoying. From the get go, the narrator tells us that she is dead, but writing in present time. The explanation for this, when it finally comes, is either too silly to tolerate or worthy of yet another novel, depending on your point of view. All in all, Dreamers of the Day tries to accomplish much more than it can deliver.
I got my copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.
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