“The truth is that she hated me for being happy. She hated me for finding love when love had deserted her. She hated me for creating a family when she had lost hers.”
The idea of historical fiction is one that tends to conjure up images of book covers for Ellis Peters type thrillers about monks and monasteries or alternatively something about the plague.
So it was with some trepidation that Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing was picked up. But there are a few reasons why this book works compared to perhaps some of the other offerings on the market. Firstly, Pullinger has clearly done her research and been to the location of her novel’s setting Egypt. That makes it more a work based in fact than imagination.
Secondly, the backdrop and the timing are integral to the novel not just being used for the sake of being different. Let me explain further. Some times a Roman backdrop feels as if it has been put in because of their associations the reader has with that era of excess, war and emperors. Here the reader is likely to come to a world of class and politics in an old Egypt that is new to them. That means that Pullinger has to work at describing and setting the action.
In one sense this is a story about class and jealousy. A loyal servant finds love and chooses to keep that from her faithful employer. Once the secret is out the relationship breaks down completely. That is handled well although as a reader you are left frustrated with the impotence of a system that was only on the side of one set of people. But that was the reality and Pullinger also paints an interesting picture of the politics of a virtual dictator who is taking the men from the villages to build and die constructing his dreams.
What makes this book work so well is the descriptive powers that are deployed by Pullinger. You can visualise the hot Luxor environment, the small Bedouin children and the camel drives. Her ability to develop characters also means you can see the pain and anger as the relationships between the three pivotal characters changes.