Stevie Davies: Into Suez: Parthian Press, Cardigan 2010

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Usually, historians are unwilling to recommend historical novels: we tend to see them as ‘easy writing’, and we’re quick to point out their anachronisms and errors. However, occasionally, an exceptional novelist writes a work which not only seems to get the historical detail accurate, but also adds a dimension of its own.

Into Suez concerns the quest by a daughter (living in Church Stretton in 2003) to understand more about her recently deceased mother. This leads to her to investigate events in Ismailia (in Egypt), on the Suez Canal, in 1949. Her mother followed her father here, as he was working for British army. Much of the novel is a vivid re-creation of the lives of ordinary soldiers and their families in ‘Wogland’, as they term it. The relationships between mother, husband and daughter pulse and rock together: at times there are strong, loving feelings, drawing them together into a sense of shared human community, despite their differences. But the strange context in which they live throws up new tensions. Davies is extremely observant about the micro-processes: the tiny unwritten laws, the daily manoeuvres, the small decisions which make up the texture of daily life. We anticipate from the start of the novel that there will be a tragedy: as the chapters go by, each of the characters faces decisions and chooses options and, gradually, we realize that often despite their essential decency, they choose badly. Within this spectrum of decisions, attitudes to the ‘Gyppos’ (Egyptians) and to the rising tide of Egyptian nationalism become more and more important.

Into Suez is a rich, subtle, intricate novel, writing with a type of imaginative power that is capable of transporting the reader into a world that is at once very far away and yet still very close.

Reviewed by Sharif Gemie, whose research and teaching interests include Israel and Palestine and nationalism