But still the heart doth need a language

This is my review of The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif.

Lonely and at a loose end after her return to Cairo, Amal assists the thirty-something American Isabel Parkman to translate some of the papers left by her great-grandmother Lady Anna Winterbourne who married an Egyptian nationalist a century before at a time of great political unrest when Egypt was still "under the yoke" of the British Empire. Fascinated by Anna, Amal begins to reconstruct her story, although it is often hard to know where fantasy ends and real scenes from the past begin. To a lesser extent, she applies the same approach to Isabel's meetings with Amal's suave elder brother with whom she is becoming infatuated.

The prospect of gaining a perspective on Egyptian history and politics seen through the eyes of an Egyptian woman, the author Ahdaf Soueif, is what drew me to this book, although I agree that the combination of somewhat soft-centred romance with serious historical and political comment may cause it to fall between two stools. The theme of examining love affairs between different cultures across generations against a complex political background is very ambitious, and perhaps the price paid is that the reader's attention is stretched over too many people, rather than engaged with a few fully developed central characters.

The author's style may be typically middle eastern and therefore all part of the experience to be gained, but I found my growing impatience with it a real barrier to reading the book. Despite my strong desire to like this novel, I felt smothered by its embroidered wordiness, the often banal dialogues and overdetailed descriptions as a substitute for dramatic action, the convoluted structure clanking back and forth in time. At one point Soueif goes off at a tangent on the nature of colour and the impossibility of defining the point at which, say, blue becomes green. Why not simply express this fascinating idea in a few pithy words on the lines of, "How strange that one cannot see exactly when blue turns into green"?

This is, as a reviewer described another of her books, an acquired taste. If you enjoy long, slow, rambling, gentle even in the midst of violence, reflective family sagas with frequent little digressions this may well appeal. Also, apart from its length, this could be a good choice for a book group as it provides scope for discussion of both plot and style, and is likely to divide opinion.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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