This is Wendy Wallace’s second historical fiction novel. I remember hearing about her first, The Painted Bridge, last year but never got round to reading it so I was pleased to have a chance to read this one, The Sacred River. This book is set in the nineteenth century and is the story of three women and how their lives are changed during a visit to Egypt.
Harriet Heron is twenty three years old but still feels that she is treated like a child. She has suffered from severe asthma for many years and feels stifled by her over-protective parents. Having always been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians, Harriet is delighted when the doctor manages to convince her mother and father that a trip to Egypt for a change of air will improve her health. Finally she has a chance to escape from her sheltered life in London and see the world.
Harriet soon sets off on her voyage to Egypt in the company of her mother, Louisa, and her Aunt Yael but before they reach their destination, Alexandria, a meeting with an artist on board the ship causes tension between Harriet and her mother. It seems that the secrets of Louisa’s past could be about to be revealed, destroying Harriet’s happiness in the process. But this is not just the story of Harriet and Louisa; another character with an interesting story is Yael, Harriet’s aunt. On their arrival in Alexandria, Yael is shocked by the lack of health care available to the city’s children and plans to start a clinic to educate their mothers, but she soon discovers that the people she had been relying on to help her are reluctant to get involved.
Harriet is a wonderful character and I loved the way she grew and blossomed as a person over the course of the novel, as her health improved and she began to find the freedom she had always longed for. But I also liked Yael and admired her for her energy, determination and desire to make a difference. Like Harriet, she discovers a happiness and fulfilment in Alexandria that was lacking from her life at home in England. Louisa is the only one not enjoying life in Egypt and the reason for this is only revealed very slowly. We know it’s due to something that happened in her past and that it involves Eyre Soane, the artist the women meet on the ship, but the details remain a mystery until later in the book.
Egypt is always a fascinating and atmospheric setting, yet I don’t seem to have read many books that are set there. Harriet’s (and presumably the author’s) enthusiasm for the wonders of the ancient world, for archaeology and hieroglyphics shines through and it was good to have the opportunity to learn a little bit about the subjects Harriet is so passionate about. I must remember to look out for Wendy Wallace’s first novel, The Painted Bridge, having enjoyed this second one so much!
Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy.