The Anglo-French experience in Egypt has been given thorough literary treatment during the past few years, most recently in Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing, which highlighted many aspects of the cultural contrast between
East and West. Shomer’s The Twelve Rooms of the Nile makes an admirable effort to contribute to this legacy by embedding the milieu in a notoriously Victorian setting
yet keeping one foot firmly entrenched in a golden age of raw courage and bravery.
Here Gustave Flaubert and Miss Florence “Flo” Nightingale both ache for a connection to the classical past that so thrills them. Flo, particularly naive, is burdened by society’s rules regarding the behavior
of women. When we first meet her, her ambition is more than a dream: it's an urge that she feels her English family should entirely accommodate. Even in the bloom of womanhood, Flo mostly goes unnoticed by the world, as befits a person of female sex and stature.
Like an "English sparrow,” Flo travels to Egypt with her unconventional friends Selina and Charles Bracebridge and her maid, the complaining, overweight Trout, who happily dresses her mistress and chats her up as though they were bickering spouses. At the same time, Gustave and his best friend, Max, are on an official mission to compile a catalog of the ancient monuments and make life-sized facsimiles of the ancient friezes. Both are possessive and infuriating in their lust for local prostitutes. The “best brothel companion,” Max’s lechery is far more expansive than Gustave’s, who comes across in the story as a true literary provocateur. Gustave wants to launch his literary career with a novel and possibly a play.
The Nile laps “like molten pewter touched with rivulets of gold.” Gustave can’t quite believe he’s traveling in the world of Lord Byron, a landscape inhabited by bare-chested men wearing fezzes. For Flo, the Nile represents a “male presence,” a creature of “long sinuous muscles” strong enough to lift her.
The river is also deeply symbolic of her dormant sexuality, embodied in her ache to break free of her whalebone, petticoats and hoops.
While Shomer at times meanders away from the action, her book is accurately and lovingly evocative of the rhythms of Egyptian life in all its richness, as well as its lingering poverty and superstitions. Also, Shomer's lucid prose enhances her shrewd descriptions of Egypt's antiquities. The novel is fascinating in describing the kindly arrogances
of Gustave and Flo along with their isolated and difficult past. We feel the grief that tinges Gustave’s throat at the death of his beloved younger sister, Caroline, and Flo’s bitterness at her controlling mother, Fanny, who had the power not only to block her ambitions but to instill in her daughter
humility and doubt where there were once too many high spirits and too much confidence.
An expedition across the desert to the Red Sea becomes a gigantic theater hung with “numberless scrims” in shades of satin, ivory, beige and mauve. A plot twist exposes the hidden motives behind Gustave and Flo’s friendship, which in turn gives the colorful backdrop and propels the story forwards. Gustave creates a hunger in Flo’s heart. He admires her directness and apparent lack of embarrassment. Both are fueled by candor, mutual honesty, and an “intensity of the condemned.” Gustave hopes to reconcile his dissipated ways--his studied crassness and his love of perversity--while Flo seeks to conquer
the self-doubt which is in danger of ruining her moral clarity.
Questioning many of their deep philosophical concerns and digging hard into their private domains, Shomer reveals roads not yet taken
and the full spectrum of emotion that this exotic culture effected on these two individuals, so different yet so alike.