Linda Holeman’s books are perfect comfort reading for me. She writes the kind of historical fiction I love, with just the right combination of romance, history and adventure. One of the things I like about her books is the way she chooses such interesting settings (19th century Afghanistan in The Moonlit Cage, for example, or British-ruled India in In a Far Country). The Saffron Gate is set in 1930s Morocco, a time and place I know very little about, but Holeman really makes the setting come alive, from the noise and bustle of the souks in Marrakesh, the taste of hot couscous and mint tea, the vibrant colours of the trees and flowers.
But Morocco in the 1930s can be a dangerous place for a woman on her own, as our narrator soon discovers. Her name is Sidonie O’Shea and she’s travelling to North Africa from her home in Albany, New York in search of her fiancé Etienne Duverger, who disappeared without word, leaving behind a mysterious letter from his sister in Marrakesh. When Sidonie arrives in Morocco she realises the enormity of her task – she has no idea where to start looking for Etienne and it seems that certain people are determined to stop her from finding him at all costs. As Sidonie continues to search, she begins to fall in love with Morocco and at the same time uncovers some important truths about both Etienne and herself.
There were times when I wanted to throw this book across the room in disgust, not because it was badly written, but because one of the characters was just so horrible and so cruel to Sidonie I didn’t think I could bear to read any more. Not only that, but Sidonie is far too innocent and trusting, which started to frustrate me after a while. Somewhere in the middle of the book though, the story began to go in a different direction to what I was expecting and I started to feel more hopeful of a happy ending. Whether I got one or not I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.
I learned a lot from this book about the role of women in 1930s Morocco, how they lived, and how they were scorned and looked down upon if they didn’t have a husband. There was also a lot of information about their fashions, customs, superstitions – and some fascinating details, such as the rituals of the hammam (public baths).
I’ve enjoyed all of the Linda Holeman books that I’ve read, but I think this one has been my favourite so far. I would highly recommend The Saffron Gate to anyone who likes to read long historical fiction novels that allow you to immerse yourself in another culture for a while.