Cannonball Read IV: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
I absolutely loved Mary Doria Russell's first two books (The Sparrow and Children of God). Those books easily top any list of all-time favorites. Because of this, a friend lent me Dreamers of the Day and, honestly, I put it on my bookshelf and promptly forgot all about it until it was time to find a book to read for Cannonball Read. I guess neither the cover art nor the description of the novel had particularly interested me. In recent years, I've been turning my nose up at "literary" novels (which can so often be boring, pretentious, depressing and pointless) and this book seemed to err on the side of literary. But it just so happens that I've recently seen Lawrence of Arabia so I was intrigued by the premise.
Agnes, a 40-year old spinster schoolteacher, unexpectedly inherits some money and decides to use it to take a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. While there, she falls in with T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell. The three are holed up in the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference and Agnes, rather unexpectedly, gets a front row seat to an event that continues to influence Middle Eastern politics. Looking back, it's fairly astonishing that a small group of white men (and one woman) motivated only by politics and money could have so casually carved up the Middle East but that's exactly what they did.
One would think, given the epic scale of events and personalities involved, that this would be a dense book, but in fact it is a slender novel, concisely written. Russell rather cleverly gives us the events from the first person perspective of Agnes - a relatable, ordinary and (if well educated and thoughtful) woman. Occasionally one or other of the characters might illuminate a piece of Middle Eastern history to Agnes but that's it. Russell respects her reader's intelligence and does not bludgeon or overwhelm her audience. She does not make her larger than life characters into caricatures. If Lawrence ultimately has the narrator's affection and sympathies, neither Churchill nor Bell come off badly (despite some of their rather unappealing political views). Because the book is written from Agnes' perspective, these famous people are portrayed in a more immediate and personal fashion - exactly as one would expect from an intelligent witness. I suppose if you've been raised in the cult of Winston Churchill, you might be a little uncomfortable with this vision of Churchill (greedy, selfish, paternalistic and unconcerned with the desires of the population whose fate he held in his hand), but I think an objective glance at what Churchill did in Cairo bears out his portrait. Admittedly, Lawrence comes off a lot better than Churchill but at least he was actively thinking about what was best for the Middle East rather than the European countries then occupying the Middle East.
I didn't love this book - in parts I found it a little precious and contrived - however, I really enjoyed spending time with the main character, Agnes and in the process of reading this book I learned a few things I didn't know.
Oh, and, if you're reading this book and want a film to watch as a companion piece (other than the obvious Lawrence of Arabia), you should check out Cairo Time starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Like Dreamers of the Day, it's about an educated, middle-aged American woman coming to Egypt and while it doesn't have the political element the parallels between Cairo Time and Dreamers of the Day are fun to explore.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
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