From the Publisher
“Tantalizing…Pullinger has done her research.…Sally’s observations…bring this lost world to life.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The book’s commitment to a historical and pragmatic voice is its true gem....A tough story of the unavoidable tragedies and celebrations that three simple, yet extraordinary, lives may yield.” -Book Page
“Explores the relationships people form across boundaries….This is a book you can’t stop thinking about.” -San Francisco Book Review
"A highly sensual evocation of place and time, Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing is a journey down the Nile that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era. The book, narrated by the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature."
~Governor General’s Jury Citation
“Endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.” –Publishers Weekly
“Romance and tragedy baked in the blistering oven of British morals and prejudice.” –Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A rich, compelling novel. The story is told...so engagingly that I felt a great loss when I reached the end of the book.” –Historical Novels Review
“An interesting story, exploring relationships between mother and child, master and servant, husband and multiple wives, as well as bringing out the political climate of Egypt during the 1800s.” –The Oklahoman
“Scorchingly powerful.” –Good Housekeeping
Pullinger has done her research, and the customs and politics of the perioda visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales, the pilfering of antiquitiesall make it into the novel…But it's Sally's observationsof men sleeping on the deck of a ship, "rolled up like carpets in a souk," or the feel of the Arabic language in her mouth, "full of air and full of earth at the same time"that bring this lost world to life.
The New York Times
Based on the real Lady Duff Gordon's journey to Egypt with her maid in the mid-19th century, Pullinger's novel brings a broiling desert landscape to life through the eyes of the working classes. Maid Sally Naldrett jumps at the opportunity to travel to the Middle East with her lady, but her fairy tale grows even more exquisite when she falls in love with the lady's interpreter and guide, Omar. The blithe domestic scene takes a turn for the worse when Sally becomes pregnant, much to Lady Duff Gordon's disappointment. As Egypt's lower classes rise up against the tyrannical khedive, Sally's position grows tenuous, forcing her to fend for herself and her half-English, half-Egyptian child in Cairo, a budding tourist town quickly shedding its history. Incorporating actual quotes from the real Lady Duff Gordon's letters, and endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances. (Jan.)
Governor General's Literary Award Jury Citation
“A highly sensual evocation of place and time, Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing is a journey down the Nile that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era. The book, narrated by the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature.”
When Lady Duff Gordon, forced to choose between dying a slow consumptive death in England or escaping to a dry, restorative climate, decides on Egypt, her devoted maid, Sally Naldrett, has no difficulty joining her mistress in exile. A previous unsuccessful trip to South Africa gave Sally a love of travel. Both maid and mistress fall in love with Egypt and its people as they journey down the Nile to their home base in Luxor/Thebes. By the time they settle into their house with their guide and dragoman, Omar, they have begun learning the customs and the language and are welcomed warmly by the locals. Slowly they discard their Western ways while forging deep friendships with their neighbors and, in Sally's case, an affair with her fellow servant. As proof of Egypt's magic, the prim and proper maid who scrupulously avoided any reputation-destroying entanglements at home now finds herself happily pregnant with Omar's child. This, however is one sin her ordinarily liberal and generous mistress cannot forgive, and Sally finds herself cast out and "mistress of nothing." VERDICT While the setting is lovingly and sensuously portrayed, the characters lack the depth and development that would engage the readers' interest; instead they remain somewhat unsympathetic and uninvolving. This book, which won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award, will appeal only to those interested in Egypt or the real-life Lucie Duff Gordon.—Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA
British novelist Pullinger (A Little Stranger, 2008, etc.), who collaborated with Jane Campion on the novelization of the film The Piano, reimagines history in her U.S. debut.
In a renowned series of letters still in print today, Lady Duff Gordon recorded her independent travels abroad, highly unusual for a woman of mid-19th-century England; Pullinger recounts her version of Lady Duff Gordon's stay in Egypt through the eyes of her maid Sally, who receives brief mention in the letters. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon traveled on her doctor's recommendation to Egypt in 1862, reluctantly leaving behind her husband and young children. Thirty-year-old Sally has served her mistress devotedly for a decade by the time they depart England. In Alexandria, Lady Duff Gordon hires as her dragoman—a combination of "an interpreter, a guide, a factotum"—Omar, a young Egyptian also mentioned in the actual letters. With Omar, the ladies set off down the Nile to Luxor, where they settle. Lady Duff Gordon is remarkably open to studying the people of Egypt as well as its antiquities. Soon she and Sally are dressing "native" without the stays so symbolic of Victorian England's restrictiveness. The Upstairs/Downstairs mentality is abandoned when Lady Duff Gordon invites Sally and Omar to share her meals. But if mistress and maidservant are soon besotted with Egypt, Sally is also secretly besotted with Omar. Never mind that he's married and a father. When Sally realizes she is pregnant, Omar promises to make her his second wife, legal in Egypt. Unfortunately, no one informs Lady Duff Gordon until she's called to help Sally deliver her baby. Afterward, Lady Duff Gordon keeps Omar in her employ while demanding Sally return to England and hand her child over to Omar's wife. Pullinger portrays Sally's ultimate rebellion as a courageous act of independence and Lady Duff Gordon as an unforgiving puritan and snob.
Putting 21st-century political correctness aside, compared to Lady Duff Gordon's courage and complexity, Sally comes off as a self-delusional, whiny adulteress.