The Bride Box by Michael Pearce
My own experience demonstrates that reactions to older people are generally quite negative. Our culture is built on a number of stereotypes portraying the ageing process as something to be feared. This leads to a form of willful blindness. The young prefer not to improve their knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to be old. Assumptions and prejudices therefore bedevil intergenerational relations. This makes it interesting to see an older author at work — I gave Michael Peace a few years head start but we both continue to work and write as pensioners. It’s useful confirmation to the world that at least in his case, if not mine, intelligent life continues after retirement age and should offer an opportunity for society to re-evaluate the social desirability of continuing to treat the elderly so dismissively.
I grew up reading books like The Four Feathers by A E W Mason. More recently, we’ve had books like The Triumph of the Sun by Wilbur Smith. Both these books and other historical adventure novels of their type look at the problems in the relationships between the British, the Egyptians and the Sudanese during the later Victorian and earlier Edwardian periods. The Mamur Zapt Mysteries, of which this is the seventeenth, began at the turn of the century with the situation still volatile but marginally more stable than it had been during the military campaigns to subdue the Sudan. The Bride Box by Michael Pearce (Severn House, 2013) has now advanced to 1913. In some senses, little has changed for Gareth Cadwallader Owen, The Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police. He arrived in Cairo to deal with gun smuggling and political assassination. This time round, we’re still dealing with gun smuggling, the politically inclined Pashas continue to manoeuvre for position, and slavery has not yet been stamped out. The factionalism within Egyptian society remains a problem as different groups try to decide what future they want to aim for. Pivotal is the tension between the core Islamic constituency with the madrassas fostering a more radical approach, and the Euro-centric, better educated classes who see the relative sophistication of the British and French as an inspiration. Underlying all this is the powerful racism that colours the relationship between the north and south, and taints the view of Sudan. When you add in the institutionalised colonial racism from the British, you have a dangerous sea of cultural eddies for Owen to navigate. Since his role is essentially political, he finds himself increasingly isolated — a trend encouraged by the fact he’s Welsh and would rather not be identified as being on the side of the English in all matters.
An early moment nicely captures the ghastly racism of colonial times as Fraser, an engineer on the Egyptian railways, finds an injured young Egyptian girl. Rather than deal with her properly, he takes her to a nearby refuge for sick animals run by Miss Skiff. In turn, she takes the girl to Owen. Since the girl’s story confirms the reappearance of slavers, this directly interests him because it would suggest political influence is being used to give the traders cover. However, matters become altogether more serious when the young girl’s sister turns up dead in her own bride box at Cairo railway terminal. Since her body is addressed to one of the Pashas, the political implications are potentially dangerous. This leads both Owen and Mahmoud el Zaki of the Parquet legal service to travel south to the area where the girls lived. What follows is a very interesting meditation on the nature of the relationships within a family, how that scales up to a kin group, and what loyalties and ties may form within the wider community of traditional Islam. At the centre of this is a young man who suffers a relatively minor intellectual disorder. Fathers are always disappointed when their sons are less than perfect. Mothers are always protective of their children when practical and emotional needs are greater. So how should parents react in 1913 when psychology is in its infancy? Even today, there’s considerable misunderstanding and prejudice. In colonial Egypt, the chances of “error” were significantly greater.
Some of you might worry that this book is slightly shorter than the novels written by today’s younger authors. Fear not. This has very clean narrative lines and carefully defined themes, managing to pack a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical novel, and a simple adventure story into an author box wrapped in a discussion of racial and political tensions affecting a young man with a mental disability. It’s a thought-provoking and very entertaining read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.