Spring break in Cairo
Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell, is a rocking ride on the historical fulcrum point of a spring 1921 meeting in Cairo—where the Middle East was divvied up according to the various theories and negotiating skills of a small group of primarily European strategists.
Agnes Shanklin provides a first-person context that ranges widely and thoroughly through the years before, with the dire impact of two waves of epidemic influenza sandwiching the raw meat of the world’s bloodiest war. Her teacherly persona perfectly expresses her ability to tackle this broad sweep of influences with such informed passion. If you are a curious reader but distinctly allergic to nonfiction, this novel is so believable, and its history so remarkably tuned to today’s current events, that it can serve as historical text.
The book jacket calls Agnes ‘charmingly diffident’, and hers is a voice that disguises the difficult work of historical explication in the simple self-deprecation of a well-brought-up young woman with a domineering mother. In a writing student’s efforts (mine) to explore the concept of voice, this one is remarkably understated. In a world of pseudo-rebellious snarkiness and pseudo-strong machismo or just plain cold violence, Russell’s success with this story gives relief from the hype.