An ode to Flaubert and Nightingale
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
THE revision of history has become an alluring sub-genre of fiction, for writers and readers. When novelists are adept, they unearth a different kind of truth than historians, who must create worlds, time periods and figures with one hand metaphorically tied behind their backs, ignoring connections and private thoughts unless supporting documentation can be unearthed. For some readers, the novel-as-history offers an enjoyable way to acquire knowledge or to connect with the emotional lives of historical people.
Novels such as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Don DeLillo’s Libra (about Lee Harvey Oswald) move beyond pure fact without warping the historical record. They add nuance to important real-life figures while achieving the essential magic of fiction: the suspension of disbelief in the reader. While readers may know, for instance, that Ned Kelly fathered no daughter, they also accept that in Carey’s novel this is an essential fact that exists separately from the historical truth and only for the duration of the reading. Great writers make this leap through skilful language, proficiency with the subject and powerful By Enid Shomer Simon & Schuster, 450pp, $29.99 imaginations that offer the reader more than mere conjecture or whim.
When the historical figures in question are giants of their fields, these requirements can be insurmountable. When a debut novelist attempts to write in the voice of a grand stylist, the undertaking is audacious.
Award-winning story writer and poet Enid Shomer has attempted just such a bold debut novel. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile tracks the simultaneous 1849-50 Egyptian voyages of Gustave Flaubert, one of France’s greatest novelists, and Florence Nightingale, ‘‘ the Lady of the Lamp’’, while both were still unknown and untested. Without question, the two travelled the Nile at the same time. Flaubert writes in his journal about spotting Nightingale’s party (he does not name her), but there remains no evidence that they met.
In Shomer’s novel, they form a passionate friendship through which each is irrevocably altered. Because of their necessary forfeit of one another, Flaubert fulfils his destiny to become a father of the modern novel and Nightingale a visionary nurse who transforms the future of healthcare.
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile zips along with exotic flavour, offering a detailed tour of Egypt’s sights, smells and customs, alongside meticulous descriptions of many of Flaubert’s erotic adventures, but it never moves beyond delicious lark. Shomer’s often-deft language stitches the melodrama together, but this imaginary romance flounders. The novel whets a compulsion to read elsewhere, to discover the real internal lives of these characters, both on the cusp of greatness, as captured in their voluminous letters and journals.
Because this wealth of information is available, the question remains: what unfamiliar spark does The Twelve Rooms of the Nile offer? This Disneyfied version obscures a more beautiful truth. ‘‘ My dear,’’ Shomer has Flaubert say to Nightingale, ‘‘ I sensed I would be your friend from the moment we met. Fate has brought us together in Egypt for a purpose.’’
Shomer displays intimate knowledge of all the figures involved, but she fails to breathe new life into them. The idea of 27-year-old Flaubert and 29-year-old Nightingale together on the Nile and at the foot of pyramids is tantalising, but this vision is phenomenal only because of the people these two later became.