Thursday, 10 March 2016

The English Girl - Katherine Webb - an epic journey

My Thoughts

On opening this novel I was transported to the sandy deserts of Arabia and the bustling port of Muscat in Oman. I travelled with Bedouins and visited slave auctions in this epic historical romance by Katherine Webb, author of the superb books The Legacy and the Unseen.

This is a book about journeys of the body and of the soul, about women travelling and making an attempt to assert themselves in a predominantly male environment. Set in the 1950s and harking back to the 1920s, we are taken on an odyssey to Oman alongside Joan a young woman who travels there with her fiancé Rory. This trip is the culmination of her interest in archaeology and a lifetimes longing to visit the Arabia of her childhood bedtime stories inspired by the biographies of her heroine, fabled female explorer Maude Vickery.

Planning to visit her beloved brother, serving in the armed forces, trying to keep the peace in this volatile country,  Joan is frustrated to find that in this place where time stands almost still she is at best tolerated as a tourist rather than welcomed as the adventurer she dreams of being. She decides to explore vicariously through the eyes of her heroine Maude and engineers a meeting with the indomitable and unusual old lady.

The two womens burgeoning friendship places Joan in situations she never imagined in her wildest dreams and she begins to develop from the diffident, demure, rather gauche young woman who won’t defy convention and finds in herself another Joan, one who will take risks and take actions which are not quite the done thing.

Making a shock discovery concerning those she loves most, leaves her reeling and makes her act even more out of character making some rash decisions which could end up being life altering rather than the frisson of adventure she is seeking.

Whilst Joans story plays out in the heat of Oman, the story of ageing explorer Maud emerges and we discover that everything about this grand dame of the desert isn’t quite as straightforward as it first appears. Mauds story is no less compelling than that of Joan and to understand this partial recluse of a woman who shares her home with a dour and enigmatic manservant, two ancient dogs and a pet gazelle, we need to experience her journey when she was the first and only white woman to trek through the silent quarter of the desert, breaking new ground and making a journey of self discovery.

The descriptions of place are delightful and the atmosphere of dusty desert and bleak rocky mountains is superb. But what makes this book exceptional is the rich and complex characters, many with unpredictable idiosyncrasies and contradictions, and one in particular who turns out to have been and done, something so truly despicable I felt as though I wanted to commit murder!

I shed a tear or two, gasped in awe at some of the harrowing, unpredictable and unlikely events which transpire and was completely captivated by the location and adventures of our two heroines.

At one or two points I struggled to grasp Joans motivations, but the fact that she was a confused and rather indecisive young woman trying her hardest to be someone outside her own comfort zone, helped me accept her rashest decisions. A wonderful book with depth, epic scope and romantic escapism to suit most tastes. I will say no more about the storyline, to find that out you must read it yourself. Enjoy your travels in Arabia!

I was provided with a free ebook for review purposes via Netgalley and my thanks also go to the publisher Orion Publishing group.

The Publishers Description

Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled her lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal.

But Oman is a land lost in time - hard, secretive, and in the midst of a violent upheaval - and gaining permission to explore Jabrin could prove impossible. Joan's disappointment is only alleviated by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing first-hand the stories that captured her imagination and sparked her ambition as a child.

Joan's encounter with the extraordinary and reclusive Maude will change everything. Both women have things that they want, and secrets they must keep. As their friendship grows, the thrill of adventure seduces Joan, and only too late does she begin to question her actions - and Maude's motives. Realising she has become a pawn in a treacherous game to settle old scores, Joan must decide where her loyalties lie, and find a way to halt a chain of events that she herself has set in motion, before the terrible consequences can play out.

Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?

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