19 September 2010

The Mistress of Nothing

By Kate Pullinger
First published in 2009 by Serpent's Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
Winner of 2009 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

Who was Lady Duff Gordon? Was she the beautiful and intelligent woman who entertained politicians, writers, and great thinkers of the day? Was she a tragic figure who had to leave her family in England to move to the dry air of Egypt due to her tuberculosis? Was she a generous woman, willing to help anyone who asked? Or was she a mean-spirited woman who turned on her long-time maid in the most spiteful manner?

According to Kate Pullinger, Lady Duff Gordon was all of these.

While this book has Lady Duff Gordon at its centre, Sally Naldrett is the core. Sally is Lady Duff Gordon's lady's maid and the narrator of the story. She moves to Egypt to care for her Lady and falls in love with the people and its customs. Being an English maid without any English customs to adhere to gives Sally and her Lady a set of freedoms they never before experienced; freedoms which can change your life's expectations.

This was a selection for the Bool Club. Although we all liked the book well enough, three of us thought it took more than half the book before it became compelling reading. There was a divide in the discussion on whether or not Lady Duff Gordon had made Sally feel she was more a companion than a maid, thus leading Sally to believe they were on friendly terms, or whether Sally should have known there would always be a line drawn between a British Lady and her maid no matter where in the world they should live.

Although this book was terribly slow to get going, it turned out to be quite interesting and, eventually, I was unable to put it down. This is an easy read and a good book for anyone interested in historical fiction.

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