Firstly, I think the cover and title of The Map Of Love does its content a disservice. From the moody image and brief synopsis, I was expecting a giddy, breathless period love story, a light women's fiction romance. Instead, I was treated to a wide-ranging story that takes in both historical (post-Victorian) and modern-day Egypt, the varying political stances and ideologies of her peoples, and the sheer beauty and majesty of the landscape, while still finding time to delicately portray the deep loves felt by two women separated from each other by one hundred years.
At over five hundred pages, The Map Of Love is a novel to take time over. Soueif's obvious passion for her country is contagious and inspiring and I loved her observed details of people, places, customs and emotions. The two central characters of Lady Anna Winterbourne in the early 1900s and her descendant, Amal, in the late 1990s both effectively manage to speak directly to the reader because we discover Anna's story through her journals as Amal reads them. I liked Amal as she is a bit of a worrier and I could easily identify with her immersion in Anna's diaries and journals. I was experiencing the same immersion into The Map Of Love!
Anna is a daring, headstrong woman by the standards of her time. She is determined to live the life she desires after having ceded the time so far to her previous husband. We learn about the culture and society of Egypt through Anna's experience and also through Amal's reactions to Anna. I enjoyed this dual viewpoint and had no trouble with the switching from one to the other. I did come unstuck with the multitude of men's names listed in passages describing the political meetings attended by Sharif Basha. I think several must have been real people and my Who's Who knowledge of 1900s Egypt is non-existent. It would be interesting to read a nonfiction history of the same period soon and put the two books together in my mind.
The Map Of Love did have a similar effect on my emotions as another recent read, Inheritance Of Loss. Both are concerned with the aftermath of British rule on their countries and I do feel ashamed of the way British people overran such a vast part of the world and how badly the existing peoples were treated. So much of real value was destroyed in the name of Empire and, basically, simply for money.
Another common theme is the potential loneliness of exile and the challenges of living within another culture. Anna is cushioned by love and by wealth in her Egyptian life, but there is still a continuous yearning for at least a small connection to home in her letters. Amal also becomes influenced by this, I think, in her return to her ancestral lands. Having made ourselves currently rootless, albeit in a tiny way by comparison, I have found myself choosing novels that reflect and examine the experience of travelling and being away from home. I would recommend The Map Of Love as both a rich novel of the lure of a different way of life, and of its downsides.