The Sacred River is a hot contender for my favourite historical novel of the year. I read Wendy Wallace’s first novel, The Painted Bridge, a couple of months ago and I thought it was excellent. The Sacred River is even better.
The story revolves around three women: Harriet Heron, her mother Louisa, and her aunt Yael. Harriet’s short life has been dominated by illness. Living in Victorian London is not the best treatment for her terrible asthma. She longs to see something of the world before she dies, and fearing the worst she is able to persuade her doctor to recommend a trip to Egypt. The books on Ancient Egypt she has devoured have fired Harriet’s imagination. Her mother and aunt are reluctant companions, but this journey will prove momentous for all three women.
A chance meeting on board ship reawakens long-buried memories in Louisa. Secrets that she has thought safe threaten both her and her daughter’s happiness and safety. Louisa’s trip is unlikely to be a comfortable one. Aunt Yael welcomes the change in her life the least. A staid, devout woman, she has no desire for adventure or exploration. But, she refuses to shrink from the challenge, and her eyes are quickly opened to the opportunities for her in a foreign land. Yael seems to grow as Louisa shrinks. The ghosts of the past are haunting Louisa, and she no longer finds solace in the spirit world.
For Harriet the change of scene is revelatory. Her desire to see the wonders of an ancient civilization propels her forward. She is fascinated by the hieroglyphs, and their magical properties. She wants to weave herself a spell to live from these beautiful symbols. Amongst the tombs of the long dead, Harriet could find a future. But there is more than one type of danger for these women to deal with. Civil unrest is brewing in Egypt. As the Brits hunt crocodiles and sip champagne the Egyptian people starve.
The storytelling is exquisite, every word flowed through me and I felt that I was absorbing the story rather than reading it. The linking with The Painted Bridge is lovely; the family connection gives some continuity between the two books without them being at all dependent on each other. The three women are beautifully portrayed as their experiences change them. Colonial attitudes are exposed, even in the desire to do good works. Most of all, I just loved how Harriet, at the centre of three colliding cultures, grasps the opportunity to become her whole self. It is a wonderful book, and one that has me daydreaming once again about roaming amongst the ruins myself.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me an advance copy of the book to review. It is published in Hardback and eBook on 1 August 2013.