One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places I have never visited and am probably never likely to. Katherine Webb’s The English Girl is set in Oman, which is not a country I’ve ever read about before. Having previously read only The Misbegotten by Webb, I found this one a very different novel, not least because of the fascinating setting.
The ‘English girl’ of the title, Joan Seabrook, has grown up listening to her father’s stories of Arabia and longing to explore this magical, mysterious land for herself. Now, in 1958, her dreams have come true and she is on her way to Oman with her fiancé, Rory. Foreign tourists are not usually welcome in Oman, but Joan has obtained special permission – with the help of a family friend who happens to be the foreign minister – to visit her brother Daniel, who is stationed there with the British army. Having recently finished studying for her degree in archaeology, Joan is looking forward to investigating some of the sites she has heard so much about.
Arriving in the city of Muscat, Joan is disappointed to discover that the places she really wants to see – Fort Jabrin and Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain) – are off limits because of the war which is currently being waged in the mountains of Oman between the supporters of the Sultan and the Imam. She consoles herself with visits to Maude Vickery, the famous explorer who was the first woman to cross the desert known as the Empty Quarter and who has made Muscat her home. Maude was Joan’s childhood heroine and she is thrilled to have the chance to get to know her. Now an elderly woman, Maude is bitter, sharp-tongued and resentful, and not at all what Joan had expected, but when Maude asks her to carry out an important mission on her behalf, Joan is unable to refuse – even if it means putting her own life in danger.
As I’ve said, this is the first book I have read set in Oman, and I loved the beautiful descriptions of the deserts, the mountain ranges, the valleys and forts, and the streets of Muscat. It’s the perfect backdrop for Katherine Webb’s story of adventure, mystery and romance! This is also the first time I’ve read about the Jebel Akhdar War of the 1950s and the conflict between the interior of Oman (the Imamate) and the Sultanate of Muscat. The British army supported the Sultan in the war and as Joan’s brother Daniel is a soldier, this gives the characters in the novel a personal connection to events taking place around them.
Although I found a lot to enjoy, it took me a while to really get into this book and I think that was partly because Joan just didn’t appeal to me as a character. I wasn’t very interested in her relationships with Rory and Daniel and I felt that she kept putting herself into dangerous situations unnecessarily. I hoped I would warm to her eventually, but I didn’t. However, this is not just Joan’s story – it is also Maude’s, and while she is not the most likeable of characters either, she is a fascinating one.
As soon as I began to read about Maude, I thought of the real-life explorer Gertrude Bell, and after finishing the book I wasn’t surprised to see that the author’s note at the end confirmed that she had been the inspiration for the character. About half of the novel is written from Maude’s perspective, taking us back in time to her exciting journey through the Empty Quarter and her determination to get across the desert before her friend and rival Nathaniel Elliot. By the time I reached the end of Maude’s story, I admired her for what she had achieved but I also understood what had shaped her into the bitter, unhappy old woman Joan meets in Muscat.
The English Girl could be thought of as a novel of secrets as everyone seems to be hiding something. Maude, betrayed by someone she thought she could trust, has been trying to hide her pain and heartbreak for most of her life, while Nathaniel has also been concealing something that happened on his own expedition. Both Rory and Daniel are keeping secrets from Joan and there are hints of further mysteries as far back as Joan’s childhood too. Most of all, there are the secrets of Oman and of the desert and seeing these unfold as the setting is brought to life will be my lasting memory of this book.