||The Right Box
by I. M. Owen
Pauline Gedge lives in Alberta, but since her first novel, Child of the Morning, about the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, she has been most at home in ancient Egypt. In her second, The Eagle and the Raven, she veered into early Roman Britain, and I found it unconvincing-just possibly because I know more about Roman Britain than about ancient Egypt. But in her third novel, The Twelfth Transforming, she returned to Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt to tell the story of Akhenaten, the oddest of the pharaohs. Then she wrote Scroll of Saqqara, derived from a supernatural tale of the Nineteenth Dynasty.
The three thousand years and thirty dynasties of ancient Egypt make a rich quarry for the historical novelist: we have the names of the pharaohs, many of their relations, and numerous nobles, and records of some but by no means all of the events of the reigns. Thus Pauline Gedge can take a recorded incident and use her considerable powers of imagination to invent a story to surround it. House of Dreams (1994) and its sequel House of Illusions started, I imagine, from the known fact that late in the long reign of the Twentieth Dynasty pharaoh Ramses III a conspiracy to assassinate him, originating in the harem, was uncovered, and a number of highly placed men and women were implicated and condemned. The obvious problem for the novelist was to account for the discovery of a plot against a king who was on his deathbed.
In these two novels, which are really one novel, the first is a first-person narrative by Thu, a peasant girl from a village high up the Nile named Aswat. She goes to the capital at the age of thirteen under the patronage of Hui, chief seer and physician to Pharaoh. Over the next three years (a willing suspension of disbelief is advised here), she becomes an accomplished physician, and then Pharaoh's favourite concubine until she conceives and bears a son. Then it turns out that all along she has been being groomed as the instrument of a group of nobles who are plotting the murder of Ramses. The attempt fails, and Thu is charged. She sends Pharaoh a letter naming the conspirators, but an investigation turns up no confirming evidence. (This is a weak point in the story, I think.) She is convicted and condemned to death, but Ramses for old times' sake commutes her sentence to exile in Aswat, without her son.
The first part of House of Illusions, the second volume, is narrated by Kamen, a very young subaltern. Returning from a mission in Nubia, he stops at Aswat. The official he is escorting warns him that there is a madwoman there who pesters everyone from the capital to take a box she has to Pharaoh. Though told to pay no attention, Kamen is struck by her and does take her box. Having no access to Pharaoh himself, he gives it on his return to his commanding officer, General Paiis, who is a brother of Hui and was a member of the conspiracy. The reader by this time has realized that the box contains Thu's manuscript account of her youth-in fact, House of Dreams. Paiis sends Kamen on a fake mission to Aswat, intending that both he and Thu will be murdered. Kamen divines this just in time, kills the hired assassin, and returns to the capital with Thu and the copy of her manuscript that she has prudently kept. It's some time before Kamen realizes that he, the adopted son of a wealthy merchant, is-of course-the son of Thu and Ramses.
The story works itself out from there, and ends with the condemnation and death of the conspirators as in the actual surviving record, and, as the last act of the dying Ramses, the restoration of Thu to the country estate he once gave her, where she will live happily ever after.
Pauline Gedge's strengths-imagination, ingenuity in plotting, and convincing characterization-are here in abundance. Her weakness, excessive wordiness, is, I think, under rather better control, though she still can't resist pausing from time to time to tell us all she knows or surmises about Egyptian interior decoration, landscape architecture, customs, costumes, and cosmetics.