Shadows on the Nile
Family is always complicated. When a special needs child is involved it grows even more so. Deciding where the child fits into the family – if indeed they fit at all – can become the issue around which all others revolve, and that decision can have ripple effects that last far longer than the child’s presence. Such is the case in this novel.
Jessie Kenton’s life and love revolve around her younger brother. She tries to give Georgie the affection his parents so clearly don’t feel for him. She also tries to control his problematic behaviors – the way he can’t stand being touched, the way he fixates on whatever interests him and can’t be budged, the way he screams as loud as he can when you try to force certain behaviors from him. Her efforts to reduce the irritant he is to the family fail and one night, while she is locked in her room and unable to get to him, he is whisked away. The seven-year-old girl tries her best to get her parents to tell her where he is but her questions are met initially with rebukes, later with corporal punishment. Taking Georgie’s place is now a young, perfect boy named Timothy.
Surprisingly, Timothy and Jessie form a new bond. They read novels together, share a love of mystery and serve as best confidants in a household ruled over by cold, empirical parents. While she, the natural daughter, continues in a vein of minor rebellions until age allows her to leave, Timothy is the perfect son. Until 1932, when he vanishes without a trace and Jessie’s father demands that she find him. She begins the painstaking task of tracing his steps, helped along the way by clues he leaves behind from their favorite Sherlock Holmes novels. Her knight in shining silver aiding in the quest is Sir Montague (Monty) Chamford. Timothy was last seen at a séance held in his home and he feels a grudging sense of responsibility for whatever may have occurred. When the clues lead them firmly in the direction of Egypt, Jessie and Monty find themselves crossing the desert sands in search of treasure. Only their treasure will be a young archeologist who has clearly gotten himself involved in something very dangerous indeed.
The beginning portion of this book is gripping as we feel the tension that exists in the home. Even when Georgie is gone and the household is no longer in chaos because of his misbehavior, the tension exists and it is clear that the parents are in fact the problem in that household. Later we learn that they are fascists, which I think is meant to underline for us just how awful they are. It works. We have no doubt we are dealing with selfish, petty, nasty people. When Tim at one point suggest his father is capable of murder we accept that absolutely. The man is probably capable of pretty much anything.
I like also how both Tim and Jessie respond to the treatment of Georgie. They see it as a threat – don’t behave the way we want and you too could vanish in the night. This forces Tim to do two things – the first is to walk a line between being enough like Georgie to have Jessie love him while being different enough from him to convince the Kenton’s to keep him. It also makes him sneaky. Jessie, whose heart and mind are an open book to anyone who knows her, maintains her transparent nature but indulges in gentle rebellion, ultimately leading to a strained relationship between her and her parents. This emotional pot, always set to simmer, is what boils over in our adventure.
It is also part of the problem with the story. While the family dynamic is fascinating, explaining it and moving all the little players into place slows down the pace of our mystery. At times I found myself almost bored as the story was being set up. When we reach pivotal points in the story they make less of an impact because we are exhausted from the journey to get there. Characterization is also a problem because we spend the bulk of our time with loving and loyal Jessie. While these are admirable traits they don’t lend any excitement to the tale and as a whole it bogs down in the gentle, quiet narration.
The strength of the book lies in its brilliant look at Egypt during a turbulent time and the way it examines the heart of mysteries. The author shows us how seemingly unrelated events are actually cause and effect. This means the gripping beginning and surprising ending somewhat make up for the stuporific middle. Also intriguing are the Sherlock Holmes clues which take us on a journey from England to Egypt. It was fun to follow Jessie as she unearthed each unique hint.
If you are looking for a suspense story that is more psychological than action adventure you might very well find a lot to love in this novel.