No ordinary historical tale

2011-04-06 00:00

HOPING to solve the long-standing mystery of what happened to his father­, a soldier and romantic adventurer who had served under the legendary Colonel T. E. Lawrence in his campaign against the Turks, Ivor Willoughby — the narrator of this story­ — bids farewell to his ancestral home in England and heads off to the Middle East.

Initially his journey, which takes him from Cairo to Yemen and along the Red Sea coast, seems doomed to failure as no one appears to know anything­ about his father and if they do they are not talking. A chance meeting with a former slave girl changes all that. Not only is she able to fill in some of the gaps, but she also points him in the direction of the one person who may be able to solve the rest of the puzzle.

Set in the thirties, when the importance of oil and the changes it was bound to make to Arab society were still to be felt, author William Newton faithfully animates the time and place, and his portrait of the Bedu people and the desert they inhabit is loving and full of detail. Although he does plunge with a storyteller’s relish into the action scenes, the book is far more than just an ordinary historical tale of derring-do.

Beautifully touching and quietly assured, there is a strong elegiac timbre to the writing and a wealth of historical and geographic detail, but never so much as to obscure the narrative.

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