Book Review: The English Girl by Katherine Webb
Highly recommended—a beautiful, immersive read.
The English girl of the title, Joan, travels to Oman, in the Middle East with her fiancée in order to escape her past and to see the places about which, as an archaeologist, she’s been fascinated for years. But achieving her goals isn’t easy as Oman is in the middle of a war between the ruler of Oman’s interior, and the Sultan, ruler of coastal Oman, who is backed by the British army which includes Joan’s brother.
When she meets her elderly heroine, Maud, whose explorations of the desert she’s studied (and which comprise the parallel narrative), she becomes embroiled in the country’s politics at a personal level which challenges her to grow as a person and to delve deeper into understanding what lies beneath the surface of things.
(i) 1958 Oman, Middle East with flashbacks to growing up in England in 1939
(ii) 1901-9 Various locations in the Middle East with flashbacks to growing up in England in the 1890s
The dual timelines fall in alternate chapters and work increasingly well as the novel progresses and the timelines became more closely entwined as Joan’s and Maud’s emotional lives and physical travels begin to mirror each other’s.
Elegant, beautiful prose reflecting the stunning settings and emotional and physical journeys of the two women. Suspenseful.
There’s romance simmering in the background which this romance-loving reader would have liked to have seen a little more of. But I’m sure it will satisfy the majority of readers.
Two Best Bits
Unusual setting. Webb brings to life the drama of a setting which has also long fascinated me (often visited from my armchair). And I love the way she uses that setting to connect the characters.
‘He shuffled along to make more room for her at the ledge’s widest point, and in silence they watched the sky change colour. It went from grey to a chilly turquoise green, and then almost to white before it turned gold and red and orange as the sun burst into the sky. As one, they raised their hands, and shielded their eyes. A soft breeze came to hum in their ears, and gentle sounds of life drifted up from Siwa; the silence of the desert could not survive so close to civilisation. But still the moment was long, and serene, and very nearly perfect. And there was nobody else in the whole world, Maude realised, who could have understood it and shared it with her the way Nathaniel did.’
Webb’s language. I can re-read certain phrases simply to enjoy the beauty of them.
‘The air was chill, as still and scentless as stone.’
I really enjoyed this book, as I do all of Katherine Webb’s books.
Her writing is always a joy to read, not a cliché or hackneyed sentence in sight, with settings beautifully evoked, richly detailed histories which bring the past to life, and characters struggling to deal with emotional issues which the settings enhance.
I love long books full of rich description in which you are with the characters every step of the way, feeling their conflicts and watching them move forward as they uncover secrets and learn about themselves in the process. I enjoy being fully immersed into each timeline and taken on a journey into everyday lives of people in each period of history, as well as the personal life of the key characters. If you enjoy fast reads, with sparser descriptions and condensed storylines, then this book may not be for you.
As I read The English Girl I wondered how Webb would manage to wind up the conflict which is at the centre of Joan’s experience: both private and public. She has to make some very difficult decisions which she ultimately does. While some of the plot twists had me annoyed with certain characters I was happy to go along with them because ultimately I believed in the characters and wanted to know how it all wound up.
In summary, The English Girl is a very enjoyable novel about personal growth against a backdrop of stunning settings and turbulent times.
Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal.
But Oman is a land lost in time - hard, secretive, and in the midst of a violent upheaval - and gaining permission to explore Jabrin could prove impossible. Joan's disappointment is only alleviated by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing first-hand the stories that captured her imagination and fuelled her ambition as a child.
Joan's encounter with the extraordinary and reclusive Maude will change everything. Both women have things that they want, and secrets they must keep. As their friendship grows, Joan is seduced by Maude's stories, and the thrill of the adventure they hold, and only too late does she begin to question her actions - actions that will spark a wild, and potentially disastrous, chain of events.
Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?
Link to author’s website and where to buy
· Paperback: 464 pages
· Publisher: Orion; UK ed. edition (July 10, 2018)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 1409148548 · ISBN-13: 978-1409148548