Book Spotlight: The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Publish Date: August 21, 2012

Order From:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound

Synopsis: Before she became the nineteenth century’s heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled up the Nile at the same time. They never met, but in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, these two wanderers ignite a friendship marked by intelligence, humor, and ravishing tenderness that will alter both their destinies.

On the surface, Nightingale and Flaubert couldn’t be more different. She is a woman with radical ideas about society and God, naive in the ways of men. He is a notorious womanizer, involved with innumerable prostitutes. But both are at painful crossroads in their lives and burn with unfulfilled ambition. In Enid Shomer’s deft hands, the two unlikely soul mates come together to share their darkest torments and most fervent hopes. Brimming with adventure and the sparkling sensibilities of the two travelers, this mesmerizing debut offers a luminous combination of gorgeous prose and wild imagination, all of it colored by the opulent tapestry of mid-nineteenth century Egypt. 


Had the young Frenchman not been lost in thought, he might have caught his Baedeker as it jostled free of the gunwale and slipped into the river. Bound in red morocco with gilt lettering and gilt-edged pages, it was a costly gift from his dear mother.

At first the book floated, spread open like a bird with small red wings. But as the waters of the Nile darkened the onionskin pages already stained with Oriental sauces and cup after cup of Turkish coffee, they swelled like the gills of a drowning fish. His dragoman, Joseph, reached for it with an oar, but the attempt served only to push the guidebook farther under and soon it disappeared into the murky wake of the cange. The gentleman frowned.

The crew set about mooring the vessel on the riverbank. The Frenchman took a deep breath and realigned the incident in his mind, turning it the way you might a newspaper the better to scissor out an article. If he had to lose his guidebook, what better place than the Nile, that great liquid treasure pit? Let it molder in the deep, among shepherds’ crooks and shards of clay oil lamps, or be heaved ashore with the river’s yearly inundation of silt. He pictured a workman or scientist retrieving it in the future, reading the inscription he’d written on the fly page in indelible ink: “G. Flaubert, author of the failed novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1849.” Maybe he would be remembered for something after all! But the thought only made him frown again. Ambition was a dull pain, like a continually broken heart.

The crew prepared to serve the midday meal. Egyptian cleverness extended not only upward to the immense, immovable majesty of the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the gargantuan colonnades at Karnak, but also downward to the practical and portable, to folding stools, chairs, and tables, expandable fishnet sleeping hammocks, and sacs for foodstuffs. Where moments before the crew had trafficked the broad central planks of the deck, there now appeared a dining nook, shaded by muslin hoisted on poles and tied at the top like a fancy parasol. He watched Achmet float a white damask cloth onto the table, then lay pewter chargers and pink porcelain plates, and finally, neatly frame each table setting with utensils and drinking vessels. A ewer of red wine and two full wineglasses in the dead center of the table reminded him of a floral arrangement trailing two spilled roses.

On the foredeck, a Nubian crewman was chopping and cooking, while leaning on the mainmast of the skysails, Rais Ibrahim, the captain, haggled with a fishmonger. Soon enough a phalanx of tin trays laden with dolma—all manner of stuffed vegetables—would appear to rise unaided, levitating on the heads of the crew.

Gustave and his companion, Max, had left France four months earlier. They were sailing south to Abu Simbel, after which they would turn around and follow the current back toward Cairo, visiting more monuments at their leisure. Upon the completion of their river journey, now in its eighth week, they would tackle Greece, Syria, Palestine, and all of western Turkey from Smyrna to Constantinople. Later, perhaps Persia and India.

Most of their itinerary lay within the borders of the Ottomans, cared nothing, Gustave knew, for the connection to the classical past that so thrilled him. Genuflection at the altar of Graeco-Roman and Egyptian antiquity was to their thinking probably amusing if not idiotic. Their holy shrines lay farther East, in domains marked by a fastness of sand and abstinence. When, four decades earlier, they’d allowed the Elgin Marbles to be removed to England, it had ignited bidding wars among curators, archaeologists, and wealthy collectors for every torso, ossuary, and water jar. To the Turks this was not vandalism, but an opportunity to sell off useless debris. With their prohibition against the graven image, he imagined they might even be disgusted that a human form fetched up in stone could excite such ardor.

Though his hosts ruled a large chunk of the world, historians seemed to agree that a golden age based in raw courage and gallantry was behind them, that they now lived by collecting in tribute what they had once secured with the bloody scimitar. He admired the fact that unlike the Europeans, who were prone to wars of ideas, the Turks reigned benignly, ceding to their conquered peoples great latitude in the practice of religious and national customs. Or were they benign out of inefficiency? The sultans, caliphs, viceroys, emirs, sheiks, and pashas—they had countless names for grand and petty offices—ruled from an ornately disorganized web of bribery and corruption so bloated with excess that the empire had grown unwieldy as an elephant balanced on a ball. Someday it would tumble in an earth-shaking, ruined heap.

In the meantime, both he and Max entertained fantasies of returning home with a marble bust or two, possibly a mummy. For they had learned the secret to a successful tour of the Orient: baksheesh. A handful of drachmas or piastres opened the doors of private estates to the two young Frenchmen. Obscure ruins were lit by torchlight if necessary for their inspection, and skilled cicerones were assigned to guide them to hidden corners of antiquity. With the right attire, a modicum of financial resources, and a pouch bulging with documents adorned with diplomatic wax and ink flourishes, Europeans traveling the Orient enjoyed the privileges of nobility. Lord knew that made for a stampede of them everywhere in the cities of the delta, if not yet on the river itself. Egypt was on the verge of becoming an industry. They would be among the last to see it before it was entirely corrupted by foreigners.

Author Bio: Enid Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories and the Florida Gold Medal for her second. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and many other publications. She lives in Tampa, Florida.


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