An ode to Flaubert and Nightin­gale

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jen­nifer Levasseur

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.

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