Egypt, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Ahdaf Soueif. This novel, Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. But while Naguib Mahfouz's English translations are available at every bookstore across Egypt, I don't recall seeing any books by Soueif in the bookstores, or perhaps I just didn't know where to look.
Ahdaf Soueif was another speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, which was how I came to hear her.
While at first glance, Map of Love may seem like a romance novel, it is much more than that. It covers Egyptian history of the 20th century, the disconnect felt by rural Egypt, the position of women, Egyptian history and culture on a personal level, juggling of multiple cultures for the 2 main female protagonists.
In 1900, the recently widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne visits British Occupied Egypt and falls in love with Sharif Al Baroudi an Egyptian patriot. In 2000, an American divorcee Isabel Parkman - visits Egypt with an old trunk, meeting up with Amal (Omar's sister) and both of them turn out to be related to Anna & Sharif.
There are multiple themes, voices and narratives in this novel. Fictional characters interact with historical figures. The mutual fascination between East and West, the relationship between Britain and Egypt, cultural differences and commonalities are some of the themes running through this book.
At 500+ pages, it is a long novel but it flows smoothly with very few glitches. Stories are interwoven and intermingle. It is a lovely tale, but it may come across as overly Romantic to some. The Romance is a very much a part of the story and integral to the story moving forward. This is defintiely not Chiklit, but if you are put off by tales of Romance, then avoid this book.