The Naqib’s Daughter
As in her previous, acclaimed novel, The Cairo House, the setting is Cairo, but now it is the late 18th century. Napoleon has set his sights on conquering Egypt and thereby putting an end to years of Mamluke rule. This novel focuses on the fate of two women. One is Lady Nafisa, the wife of the Mamluke ruler who holds great influence among the people and acts as a bridge between the local population and the French. She is a close friend of Elfi Bey, a loyal supporter of her husband. The other is the young and naïve Zeinab, daughter of a city official who is overly keen to ingratiate himself with the French invaders and offers his daughter to Napoleon in marriage. But Napoleon ignores her totally and she is sidelined, lonely and miserable, unsure of herself and the position into which she has been forced. There she meets Nicolas Conté. As well as a general in the invading army, he is an engineer and scientist, a kind and intelligent man. Inevitably their friendship becomes something more serious. When the French, including Conté, are forced to retreat from the city, it leaves a power vacuum and bitter and bloody reprisals begin against those who cooperated with the French. Zeinab’s fate hangs in the balance. Nafisa steps in and saves her from the worst possible fate. Meanwhile Elfi Bey is negotiating with both the Ottoman Empire and the British to secure Egypt’s future.
The final part, in which Zeinab travels to London with Elfi Bey, seems ‘tacked on’ and is less convincing. That aside, the novel is both entertaining and informative, which is exactly what you want from good historical fiction. There are a useful glossary of Arabic words and a note on the history and sources.