"Through the stillness of the early morning, when the dark dawn sky was transfixed by arrows of light, there rose from the courtyard oven room the sound of dough being kneaded rhythmically, like the beating of a drum."
Sitting in the beautiful garden of my friend Jim in a courtyard-like alcove beside a pool of hyacinths yesterday, we were joined by several other readers we were discussing this novel by the Nobel-prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz. Everyone agreed that it was a good read and perhaps even a great book; certainly worthy of the setting with the late afternoon sun gracing the flowers surrounding us. The literary discussion that followed focused on the center of the novel -- on the characters Mahfouz created and their relationships--their story. The story is one which takes you back to Cairo, Egypt during the Great War. Palace Walk is set in Cairo, and covers the time between 1917 and the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Most of the book, however, is set inside a single house, both a haven and an isolated island. The family is devoutly Muslim and each of the members, mother, Father, three sons and two daughters are distinct personalities with a story and a life to live. While the novel begins slowly, Mahfouz has complete control and uses this control to slowly increase the speed at which events occur to stir the pot, as they say. The meaning of time and its effect on the world is one of the major themes of the novel.
While it is a patriarchal society with a tyrannical Al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad, the father, at the head of the family he sees his control diminishing as events overtake him, both within and without the family. The youngest child, his son Kamal, is easily the most likable family member and functions, in part, as a go-between the older male and female family members because at ten years of age he is young enough to be accepted in both realms. However, in this strict Muslim family the women are kept separate from the men and the mother, Amina, in particular maintains a subordinate role to her husband but does not rebel, for the most part, that is until her one mistake which shakes up the household and her relationships. But, rather than discuss specific events I would suggest that the success of the book depends upon the authors ability to maintain both control and a balance of the narrative that is exceptional in literature. The book reminds one of Eliot's Middlemarch both in this sense and in its portrayal of the breadth of society with many diverse characters interacting to present a complete world for the reader. The author does this with a subtlety and ease that makes this a delightful novel. The result is the reader's desire to continue on to read the subsequent two novels that continue this story and form the complete "Cairo Trilogy".
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