Pullinger’s astounding period novel has English travel writer Lady Duff-Gordon (1821–1869) traveling to Egypt under the care of her loyal maid, Sally Naldrett. For most of her life, Lady Duff Duff-Gordon has been hearty and adventurous.
Now she is wracked by tuberculosis, her lungs tearing apart, the illness holding her in a vice-like grip, "simultaneously shrinking and draining her."
his wife unable to bear the harsh British climate and himself desperate for a
solution, Sir Alick, her husband, recommends that she move to the town of Luxor, where she can lease a
House owned by the French Consulate and perhaps mingle with the locals. The possibility of embarking on a foreign adventure is a welcome departure from Esther’s wet and windy winter.
The women make hurried plans to depart England, arriving in Egypt. Everything
there is simultaneously alarming, entertaining and exotic, noisy Cairo as shocking as the vicious green waters of the Nile. Safely ensconced in the lovely rooms of the French
House and shivering with pleasure at their newfound freedom, Sally and Lady Duff-Gordon are overwhelmed by the stark beauty that surrounds them.
Enthusiastically learning Arabic as the venerated Nile stretches out before them
- "this broad stretch of glinting water under a tableau of hills and palm trees"
- the women fall under the tutelage of Omar, a handsome dragoman. Settling into easy intimacy and healthy camaraderie, the three grow relaxed and familiar, their gentle companionship a reflection of the transition into comfortable salon life.
There’s a noticeable change in Lady Duff-Gordon’s attitude and health as she entertains the locals.
Despite being such an odd figure in Luxor society, she no longer sticks to the dreary formalities of employer and employee. Sally is
both thrilled and startled by this new relationship, while loyal Omar goes out of his way to treat her Lady with great respect and courtesy.
Nothing, however, prepares Sally for the passions which eventually play out under the umbrella of cool, naive deception. A strong sense of foreboding echoes throughout as lover and muse are bought back to earth by the harsh realities of their mistress's brittle judgments.
The heat increases daily, and a “hot and dusty complicity” germinates between lady, maid, and manservant. Sally’s position is made even more precarious when Omar
blindsides her with promises of marriage.
Embedding her tale in Victorian texture, the author balances a devastating betrayal against a fracturing political climate. Caught in a web of guilt and shame, Sally embraces the exotic locales of Egypt more complexly than Lady Duff-Gordon. Eventually banished
but with her honor largely intact, Sally must learn to survive and rise above
the cold cruelty of her mistress despite being terrified of what the future may bring.