Monday, October 1, 2012

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Enid Shomer's debut novel The Twelve Rooms of the Nile imagines what would have happened if Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert had encountered each other while traveling in Egypt in 1850. While the future nurse and the future author of Madame Bovary never actually met, they did have similar itineraries and were indeed in Egypt at the same time. Well-researched with flawless prose, the book is steeped in detailed descriptions of everything from the pyramids to the details of a lady's toilette. One can smell the smells and breathe the air and watch the sunsets, so rich in atmosphere is the novel.

However, the chapters which are from the point of view of Flaubert are like wading through sewage. The mind of the great French author is completely taken up with thoughts of prostitutes and pornography to the point of morbidity. I understand that Flaubert's sex addiction was how he dealt with the loss of his beloved sister as well as the onset of epilepsy, but there are some minds that it is better not to delve into too deeply. I now better appreciate why Madame Bovary is such a dark story with no hint of redemption, if Flaubert was truly a man without hope as he is depicted in Twelve Rooms. The colorful descriptions of various body parts gave me more information than I needed for my enjoyment of the book.

I wish that the novel had left out Flaubert completely and concentrated solely on Florence. The chapters about her are a joy to read, as she sees her voyage to Egypt as an opportunity for spiritual transformation; it is an interior journey as well as an exterior one. Florence is a phenomenal lady who takes every opportunity to enrich her mind and soul as she comes closer to discovering her vocation in life. The book explores her troubled relationship with her mother and her difficulties with feelings of inadequacy. The struggles of the solitary nature of the single Christian life are faced. It is fascinating to watch those struggles give way to happiness and contentment as Florence discovers at last what she is meant to do.

My only criticism with the portrayal of Florence is that at times it falls into the stereotype many people have of virginal women. She is too often shown as being silly, hysterical and overly naive. Nurses, virginal or not, usually have nerves of steel. I am thinking particularly of the nursing sisters such as the Daughters of Charity. Those were some tough women, who cared for the sick in the slums of Paris. Florence had to have similar qualities in order to face the horrors of the Crimean War. Also, she had studied medical books and she spent a good deal of her childhood and youth in the country where she nursed peasants and farm animals. I wonder if she would really have been so prudish about the human body at age 29 as she is in the novel. At any rate, the book is a brave and imaginative attempt to shed light on the psyche of the great pioneer of modern nursing. Share

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