The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
by Enid Shomer
Simon & Schuster, 2012
449 pages (hardcover)
Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale both toured the Nile in 1850. No evidence suggests that they met during their excursions, but in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer imagines that they did. That both were wealthy Europeans requiring substantial provisioning makes it possible, if not probable, that they encountered one another somewhere along the journey.
What makes this potential encounter so fascinating, as Shomer imagines it, is that these two people are so unalike, their friendship so unlikely. These differences are the alchemy that conjures a brief but intense friendship responsible for launching both parties on the trajectory for which they are known today.
She is English. Educated. Earnest to the point of exasperating her family and certain that God has called her to a life beyond marriage and child rearing. She wants to do some good, relieve some suffering, make some difference in the world; but how? Her visit to the Nile (chaperoned by sympathetic friends) is intended either to clarify her purpose or serve as a final adventure and expression of individuality before her family commands her obedience.
He is French. Entitled. Grieving the loss of his sister and the unkindness of a lover. He knows himself to be a writer but has been humiliated by his friends’ critiques. His visit to the Nile is sanctioned by the French government, granting him and his friend Max legitimacy in photographing and otherwise recording the Egyptian monuments. But for him it’s a sham, simple paperwork that secures for him whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Dragged along by Max’s ambition, he amuses himself with every kind of sexual encounter, documenting his conquests for more amusement later.
But then he shoots a bird on a crowded stretch of the road from Aswan to Derr, and a woman emerges from the throng to reprimand him for his carelessness. They discover they are traveling in the same direction, suggest a meeting at their next stop, and spark a friendship that will last only as long as their journey—but with world-changing results.
Shomer’s two protagonists are intensely real people with potentially fatal flaws. Florence’s innocence is simultaneously refreshing and embarrassing; Gustave is coarse, caddish, and surprised as much by Florence’s naivete as by his own increasing respect for her. It’s precisely because she is awkward and unaware of her own sensuality that he finds himself drawn to her and soon discovers her an intellectual equal, a role no woman has played in his life until now. This meeting of the minds is similarly stunning to Florence, having been chaperoned to within an inch of her life. Their unexpected conversations in the context of a starkly different culture and religion—and a distressing emergency—have a catalytic effect on both of them at a crucial juncture in their lives.
The nuance and pacing with which first-time novelist Shomer develops her characters is evidence of her experience as a poet. Each character has a strong, unique voice. The plot is adventurous. And her narrative is at turns lovely, brutal, erotic and compassionate, encompassing the sand-swept dessert and the green depths of the Nile, ancient gods and modern prayers, jingling harem girls and swarthy camel herders.
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile creates an historical connection where there is none but which is true to human experience and to the legacies of both Nightingale and Flaubert. It’s the kind of “what if” story that seems so real, you hope some part of it really happened.