The Waters of Babylon: A Novel about Lawrence after Arabia

Written by David Stevens
Review by John R. Vallely

T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) easily qualifies as one of the most fascinating and controversial military figures in Britain’s long history of idiosyncratic soldiers. A junior officer in military intelligence, Lawrence was posted as an advisor to Arab troops fighting to free their lands from Turkish rule as part of World War I. To the surprise of all who encountered the short, shy Englishman with the high squeaky voice, Lawrence became an outstanding strategist. He also campaigned tirelessly for Arab nationalist causes. Victorious in war, he was unsuccessful in securing Arab rights in the face of Franco-British political actions. Frustrated, he spent the rest of his life as an enlisted man under several pseudonyms in the Army and the Royal Air Force. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

David Stevens provides a window into the tortured consciousness of the postwar Lawrence—a man haunted by his failure to confront his homosexuality, his inability to atone for his political failures on behalf of Arab causes, and his impotence in overcoming his illegitimacy and difficult childhood. His agony is told through his letters and the narratives of a diverse group of friends and admirers. Stevens is a gifted writer (Breaker Morant and Merlin are on his resume), and he offers a sensitive and sympathetic account of this haunted and unhappy figure. His subject will never be an easy man to define, but Stevens has done as fine a job as one could hope for such a complex and private person. Incomplete portrayals of two personalities important to the story (King Feisal and Lawrence’s mother) stand out when contrasted with Stevens’s well-rounded descriptions of other major, and even most minor, characters. As a novelist, though, Stevens succeeds where most biographers have failed. Beautifully written, and an interesting story to boot.