Set in 1850, Enid Shomer’s debut novel imagines a blossoming relationship between Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they tour the ruins of Egypt. I should make clear that this is a work of fiction; although both Nightingale and Flaubert were in Egypt at the same time, there is no evidence that they ever even met, let alone formed the close bond they do in Shomer’s work. However, in this remarkable piece of alternate history, they find the impetus for their future successes in each other.
Shomer’s Nightingale is achingly unfulfilled and despairs that she will never fulfil what she sees as God’s calling for her. Although she loves her family dearly, she resents their expectation that she make a good marriage, that she be chaperoned at all times and that she always behave with docility. Indeed, there are many instances throughout the novel where she is (sometimes severely) chastised for her exuberance and determination. Nightingale finds an outlet for her unconventional ideas in Flaubert, and the relationship strengthens her resolve to defy the wishes of her family and forge a career in nursing.
Flaubert, meanwhile, is disillusioned by his early literary failures and devastated by the recent death of his sister. He tends to swing between periods of great despair and great desire, and subsequently many of Flaubert’s chapters are devoted to either depressive ruminations or lurid descriptions of sexual yearnings. Nightingale provides an interesting inspiration for Flaubert’s future literary endeavours as he finds her to be so remarkable that he resolves to focus his next work on a female protagonist. When considered in light of Flaubert’s own sensual proclivities it is possible to see how Nightingale could have provided the inspiration for Emma Bovary, and it is to Shomer’s credit that she develops this so cleverly.
Overall the characters are fascinating and well developed, however it is Shomer’s descriptions of the Egyptian landscape that are the strength of the novel. The dusty, arid landscape makes its wrath known upon the tourists and many times while reading I felt almost as if my own skin were caked in desert sand.
Other scenes, such as one in a foul, mummy-strewn temple elicited a similarly visceral response. The point of this is not to turn anyone off reading the book, but rather to accentuate the immensely descriptive power that Shomer demonstrates in her writing.
Shomer’s Egypt is a land of crushing poverty and rampant disease, of cruel punishments and government corruption. It certainly holds immense beauty for its European visitors, however their awe is largely aimed at the dead civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians and rarely at nineteenth-Century Egyptian society (two major exceptions being the exotic food and, for Flaubert and his companion, particularly exquisite prostitutes). Shomer’s critical approach to the imperialist mentality of her European protagonists makes for a far stronger novel than if this was just left as a quaint aspect of the period setting. As such I found myself drawn into the burgeoning relationship between Nightingale and Flaubert while also considering the broader issues brought out in the novel, and this resulted in an immensely captivating and intellectually satisfying read.
Review by Catherine Horne
by Enid Shomer
Before she became the nineteenth-century’s heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled up the Nile at the same time.
In reality, they never met. But in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, they ignite a friendship marked by intelligence, humour, and a ravishing tenderness that will alter both their destinies.
On the surface, Nightingale and Flaubert have little in common. She is a woman with radical ideas about society and God, naive in the ways of men. He is a notorious womanizer, involved with innumerable prostitutes. But both are at painful crossroads in their lives and burn with unfulfilled ambition.
In Shomer’s deft hands, the two unlikely soulmates come together to share their darkest torments and fervent hopes. Brimming with adventure and the sparkling sensibilities of the two travelers, this mesmerizing debut novel offers a luminous combination of gorgeous prose and wild imagination, all of it coloured by the opulent tapestry of mid-nineteenth century Egypt.