In this, P. H. Newby’s eighteenth novel, the author appears to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in drawing upon his wartime experiences in Egypt. Two of the main characters embody two aspects of his previous occupations as British soldier and as lecturer in English literature in Cairo. The book recounts the experiences of David Cozens, nicknamed Tishy, a young medical orderly with the British army, eager to exchange his noncombat status behind the lines for active duty. The story is told by David more than twenty years after his tempestuous, incestuous relationship as a nineteen-year-old with his uncle’s young Coptic wife, a woman presented through the narrator’s eyes as an overpoweringly sensually attractive, yet unattainable woman. “Writing about her is the only way to possess her. No one did really, certainly not Uncle Raymond, or me, or all those others.” “Those others” refers to officers, for Nadia is rumored to be a prostitute specializing in British officers. She does this to humiliate her husband, Raymond, who married her without informing her that he had been married to another woman whom he had divorced.
The book opens with the elderly David trying to describe the spell woven by Nadia, his uncle’s wife: “When you consider what Nadia eventually became it is extraordinary anyone ever thought she once tried to throw herself off the Great Pyramid.” David’s obsession is such that it is difficult for the reader to ascertain whether Nadia is all he implies she is or whether the narrator is still under the romantic spell of his youth. His first meeting with her is beguiling and frustrating. Shortly after he is stationed in Cairo, he receives word that his uncle, a lecturer at the university presently holding a commission in the British army, is seriously ill. When he visits Uncle Raymond, he is asked to look up Nadia and inquire after her welfare. He is told that the authorities have been unable to contact her. Uncle Raymond forbids him to ask about his past, of which David is totally unaware, since it has been considered a taboo subject in David’s home—at least for the youthful lad.
Gradually Uncle Raymond fills David in on the details of his first marriage and subsequent divorce and his present marriage to Nadia, an ex-student of his. It comes out that Uncle Raymond’s troubles with Nadia, besides the difference in age and background of the elderly English gentleman and the beautiful young Coptic woman, is that she had not been informed of his first wife until after their marriage. For this reason she looks upon herself as being Uncle Raymond’s concubine, and insists on believing he considers her the same.
David’s attempts at carrying out his uncle’s wishes are met at first with rebuffs from Nadia; she completely refuses to answer her door. When he finally arranges to meet her, his sexual attraction is heightened by a “clumsy attack” of an ineffectual old man who is beaten off with a single blow smashing his dentures. The old man turns out to be Nadia’s father who is in the habit of hiding outside her door and accosting visitors.
It is in the portrayal of Nadia, central to the novel, that Newby’s powers wane. Nadia represents for David all that Cleopatra was. She is exotic, beautiful, and intelligent; she quotes Henry James and Karl Marx, showing what an apt student of her husband she has been. But her actions leave the reader wondering whether she is cleverly inscrutable, as was her immortal forebear, or simply mad. For example, from the first page Newby speaks of her apparent attempt to commit suicide by the improbable means of jumping off the Great Pyramid. This occurrence takes place in the morning after their first night together. She had claimed that his sleeping with her is further proof that the English consider her to be a concubine rather than a wife, and she had disappeared from her apartment before David awoke. The entire question of whether she did or did not jump, and if she did, what her motives might have been, is left up in the air. David’s only answer is “She’s an Egyptian and she thinks she’s the Sphinx.” It is through incidents and comments like this that Newby tries to convey the exotic inscrutability of a culture alien to Western standards, but the reader is never quite sure if Newby expects him to take his comments about Nadia literally...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)