Day 482: The Map of Love

Cover for The Map of LoveBest Book of the Week!
The Map of Love is an absorbing novel to read now, just after the Arab Spring and during the troubled times that have continued on. It is a love story certainly, its title tells you that, but it also explores the roots of the political turmoil in present-day Egypt and some of the other countries that used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire.

The novel follows the course of two cross-cultural love affairs 90 years apart. In 1900 Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt in an attempt to overcome her grief. She is the widow of a man who recently served in the Soudan, and even though their marriage was not a happy one, she is sorrowful that she could not help him overcome his despair at participating in an unjust war. Almost accidentally, she meets Sharif al-Barroudi, a Cairo lawyer and activist, and falls in love with him.

Anna’s diary and letters are discovered by her great-granddaughter, Isabel Cabot. Isabel herself has fallen in love with ‘Omar al-Ghamwari, a famous Egyptian-American orchestra conductor who is rumored to work with the Palestinians. ‘Omar feels that their age difference is too great for a relationship, but he suggests that Isabel take her find to his sister Aman in Cairo so that she might help Isabel translate some of the materials.

Aman becomes absorbed in reading Anna’s diaries and letters and realizes very soon that she and Isabel are related, for Anna’s beloved sister-in-law Layla is Aman’s own grandmother. With Layla’s diaries of the same time period, she begins to reconstruct Anna’s story and that of Egypt’s history during a turbulent period. Aman has returned from life abroad to live in Cairo in another turbulent time.

Anna’s courtship is fraught with difficulties, but once she and Sharif are married, she is caught up in his work for Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire and from British oversight. As the years go by, his efforts extend to attempts to keep Palestinian land, once owned by his family and by his neighbors and occupied by hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from being bought up by Zionists who would expel them.

The blurb for this novel stresses the similarities between the two love stories, and there are many points of similarity, but the focus of the story in the current time is more with Aman than with Isabel and ‘Omar. Aman is at first at loose ends in Cairo, but she becomes involved with trying to help the fellaheen who occupy her family’s land, as they are treated unjustly by a corrupt and paranoid government. I was frankly more interested in Aman and in Anna and Sharif than I was in Isabel and ‘Omar, who are much less present in the novel.

For me, not very politically aware in regard to problems in this part of the world, this was a fascinating and revealing reading experience. It points up the complex history of the area from a point of view we westerners seldom hear. It is affectingly told in the context of a great love affair between two lovingly created characters. The characters of the two sisters, Layla and Aman, are also vivid. This novel is beautifully written and evokes for us a vibrant culture.

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14 thoughts on “Day 482: The Map of Love

    • whatmeread March 6, 2014 / 2:08 pm

      This is my first! Have you read others you might recommend?

      • Claire 'Word by Word' March 6, 2014 / 2:16 pm

        The first one I read was In The Eye of the Sun which I really enjoyed and I think was her first novel and a book of short stories called Aisha.

        Since then a lot of her work has been much more politically motivated as she has spent time in Palestine and Egypt and always provides an interesting inside perspective on issues in the region.

        I recall her writing in an article that during such times of conflict and oppression, it wasn’t possible to write fiction. But I do hope she gets back to it, it is a good way for readers to to get inside the experiences of people in other cultures, through a memorable narrative and she does this so well.

      • whatmeread March 6, 2014 / 2:24 pm

        Thanks! I didn’t know anything about her–just picked up the book because it looked interesting. I will look for, maybe Eye of the Sun.

  1. Naomi March 6, 2014 / 5:21 pm

    I have never heard of this book or author before either, but it does sound lovely.

  2. Cecilia March 6, 2014 / 5:56 pm

    This sounds wonderful and right up my alley. I really enjoy novels that take place in unfamiliar regions and amidst political situations that I should know more about.

    • whatmeread March 7, 2014 / 7:30 am

      I’m glad people seem to be interested in the book. Even though it was a finalist for the Booker prize, it seems like not many people are familiar with the book or the author (except Claire of Word by Word).

      • Alina (literaryvittles) March 7, 2014 / 11:21 am

        i think you’re right – i’d never heard of the book nor the author!

      • whatmeread March 7, 2014 / 11:22 am

        It would be nice if it would get more attention, although I don’t think my small number of readers are going to help it much. But maybe some others will read it now and also review it, and it can get some more traction.

      • whatmeread March 7, 2014 / 11:23 am

        Yeah, it’d be great to spread the word about really good books to more people.

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