The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
Simon and Schuster, August 2012
In 1873, newlyweds Henry and Clover Adams hired a dahabiyah to sail down the Nile, past the ancient temples and ruins from Philae to Abu Simbel. As Natalie Dykstra writes in her biography of Clover Adams (reviewed for the Ploughshares blog here), “Clover made an important transition on the Nile…It was as if she herself had risen to a new dawn.”
Consulting the same Murray guidebook, and on the brink of their own “new dawn,” Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale made a similar trek through Egypt twenty years before the Adams honeymoon. Though records suggest Flaubert and Nightingale might have at most glimpsed one other from separate boats, in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, the gorgeous debut novel by Enid Shomer, a poet and winner of the Iowa Fiction Prize, the two do meet, and a brief but ardent friendship sparks between them—at a time before Flaubert became the father of the modern novel and Nightingale the mother of modern nursing. At a time, as Shomer puts it, when they lived “both of them with the candor and intensity of the condemned… condemned to live as either a misfit or a failure.”
Shomer plumbs the uglier “corners of the soul,” capturing Flo’s priggishness and Gustave’s dissipation—and the unchecked Eurocentrism of both—with compassion and humor. Strapped with frustrated ambitions, both are occasionally unlikable, and their friendship doesn’t start easily: Flo is self-righteous and Gustave, insincere. Though he doesn’t feel any romantic love for his “Rossignol,” Gustave still daydreams about her breasts “with nipples, he guessed, the color of stewed prunes”; and as befits a Victorian virgin, Flo’s body was “a small Antarctica, where she didn’t trespass.” “Each time they met, they had to reestablish their footing, treading carefully,” Gustave thinks. “So exhausting, so much precision required!” Shomer skillfully calibrates these difficult figures—outsiders at home and outsiders abroad—into a wonderfully complicated and passionate friendship.
Gustave is in Egypt to flee the “gingerbread morality” that bedevils him in Rouen, while Flo is trying to escape her family, “the blood mob,” at Embley Park. During their cruise, Flo and Gustave are freed from the bourgeois demands of the class they both loathe—but which nonetheless makes their luxurious adventures possible. Sometimes they rebel against their affluence (“We are both prisoners of our privilege,” Gustave declares), and sometimes they embody it (“Egypt would be an exquisite country were it not for the Egyptians who lived there,” Flo thinks).
As a result, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a fascinating and intelligent exploration of class during the age of colonialism—especially well developed is Flo’s uncomfortable yet affectionate rapport with her servant, Trout—but the high-minded worldliness of Shomer’s privileged tourists, and their ambivalence toward the wealth that makes their travel possible, will surely resonate with postcolonial readers. From Flo’s rapturous vision of God’s call to service, to Gustave’s raki-fueled benders in Egyptian brothels, Shomer depicts a strange and erotic nineteenth century that, despite its exotic setting, looks remarkably like our own.