Famous archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, underpin Beauman’s complicated, multi-layered story that says much about the self-interest of colonial life. Set among interesting ancient Egyptian lore with atmospheric period settings, eleven-year-old Lucy Payne is destined to become anointed with all of the secrets of Tutankhamen’s discovery. Through her intrepid heroine, Beauman provides us with an entrée into another land, another time, another place.
Lucy is about to embark on a great adventure. Recovering from typhoid, she travels to Luxor with her guardian, Miss Myrtle Mackenzie, a devotee of the ancient Egyptian tombs and temples. From the jasmine and sewage scents of Cairo to the Nile’s rising towers and minarets, sunrise for Lucy becomes a sort of resurrection as she finds herself healed by this hot, dusty, seductive landscape. Tumbling us into the world from Lucy’s vantage point, Beauman places Lucy at the center of her gorgeously written collapsing universe.
Ensconced in her home in Highgate, Lucy is interviewed by a journalist conducting research for a television documentary. As he interrogates her on the subject of Tutankhamen’s famous tomb, Lucy realizes that she will soon be the only living witness left to the greatest archeological unearthing ever made and to the extraordinary historic events that galvanized Egyptology from 1922 to 1932. She remembers marveling in Luxor at the Valley of the Kings, the ancient Egyptian burial grounds, while “Miss Mack” was constantly reinvigorated by the thought of great kingdoms, lineages, and dynasties.
With the Great War fresh in their memories, the English are thrust forth into the push and pull of colonial politics. The English seem to be deluding themselves over their place in this country, a position most characterized by Howard Carter (“one devil of a temper, hawk-nosed dark haired, brooding”), Lord Carnarvon, and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert. Added to the mix is American Herbert Winlock, also a renowned archaeologist who works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his wife, Helen, and their daughter, Francis, who strikes up a friendship with Lucy, the two linked in a closeness that will span continents, illness, and even death.
Lucy revels in exploring in the morning. In the afternoon, she practices ballet with Francis always at her side. Egypt opens up before her like a jewel as does the aristocratic world of Evelyn Herbert’s best friend, Poppy D’Erlanger, the woman mentioned the first day at Madame’s dance class. The inexplicable disappearance of astonishing, exotic Poppy from The Winter Palace Hotel fuels much of the action and compounds Lucy’s episodes of confusion and uncertainty, a feeling only assuaged by Francis and Poppy’s neglected children, Rose and Peter.
As the narrative switches back and forth in time, Beauman delivers a vast social and political history lesson, fully encapsulating eighty years of Lucy’s life. The author relishes the opportunity to present the opening of the Tomb where Howard, Carnarvon, and Evelyn bask in the lurid, mystical afterglow of their discovery. But this book isn't about the mystery of Tutankhamen, or even about the whereabouts of Poppy D’Erlanger. It is rather a masterful exploration of self-delusion, self-deception, and how we create the things we need to believe about ourselves in order to get through our lives.
With Lucy’s feet firmly planted in the Egypt of yesteryear, Beauman paints her background in sun-drenched colors. The deep black velvet of a star-scattered sky hints at the stark beauty of Lucy’s mysterious past: her academic, emotionally distant father and her governess, a woman who is rarely flustered but whose sly manipulations allow Lucy to hatch a plan to escape back to Egypt, far from her gloomy existence in Cambridge. Once again we find Lucy and Miss Mack ensconced on their “dahabiyeh,” moored on the west bank of the river at Luxor, seduced by the night music of the Winter Palace Ballroom and the eddying wash of the Nile.
Lucy’s intelligence and compassion are as stunning as Beauman’s gorgeous, lush writing. We can smell the heat of the day being sucked back into the sky while Lucy cements her connection to Francis, both girls astounded by the views from the Theban Hills showing the former glory of a crumbling, ancient empire. As Lucy wanders deep into the heat and silence of the Valley of the Kings, the only sounds are the murmur of rock doves, and the sharp cry of the kites skimming the up-droughts guide her. The landscape, wildlife, and climate buttress the story and provide ample adventure and scenic beauty.
Finally, the doors of perception are thrown wide open. Love is, of course, essential. Lucy could not have foreseen that the passing years, age, and resignation could erect a barrier between her grief for herself and for a lost and broken past.