Friday, October 05, 2007

Whispers in the Sand

Whispers in the Sand / Barbara Erskine
London : Harper Collins, 2001

I'm a sucker for books about Egypt, especially ones which have something to do with lady travellers from the turn of the century. This book has interested me for a few years now, because it tells the story of Anna, a recent divorcée, taking a Nile cruise in Egypt following in her grandmother's footsteps. She brings along her grandmother's diary as well as an Egyptian scent bottle which was passed down to her. Supernatural events result; the scent bottle is haunted by the wraiths of two warring Pharaonic priests, and also has a curse placed on it by one of her grandmother's spurned suitors, a practitioner of Crowley-esque black arts.

There was so much potential here - setting, ghostly figures, romantic opportunities - but it fell flat and the book was a disappointment. The writing is a bit hackneyed at times, and the two important male characters, Toby and Andy, are unbelievably patriarchal and borderline abusive. In particular, the overbearing way that Andy behaves would have had me calling the police, as when he takes Anna's scent bottle right out of her hand and puts it in his coat pocket 'for safekeeping'. She lets him walk away, only fretting about it slightly. She has the same reaction when he steals her diary and locks in the ship's safe. I couldn't understand how Anna and her new friend Serena could be so masochistic and just lie down for Andy to walk all over them. I didn't buy these characters at all. I was making allowances, thinking it must have been written in the 70's, but when I checked the publication date and it was 2001 I was dumbfounded. Are things really so different in England that this was considered acceptable male behaviour?

Another huge flaw, necessitated by the book's structure, is the fact of the diary. Anna has owned it for years, has come out to Egypt to trace her grandmother's path, but has never read the diary! She reads it only bit by bit -- meanwhile she is seeing threatening phantoms, ghostly cobras, has people fighting over, and stealing, the diary, and she still only reads it a page at a time. When she realizes her scent bottle is haunted, she doesn't even skip to the end to find out what her grandmother had done with it. Toby and Andy are continually going on about how valuable the diary is for any antiques dealer, and yet Anna leaves it, unread, in her bedside table drawer and then leaves her cabin unlocked! I mean, who in their right mind would leave their room unlocked even on a small cruise in this day and age? There were far too many flaws for me to be able to recommend this one; the entire book is about the haunted scent bottle and the two ghostly priests trying to control it. Yet the book ends with Anna back in London, still in possession of the bottle, and she just puts in a drawer. Nothing happens! When I read the last page I actually checked the book over, thinking it was missing the last few pages - it just stopped, with so many loose ends it would have required a macrame class to tie them all up.

This book should have been spared the indignity of publication. If you want good stories of intrepid lady travellers to Egypt, read Elizabeth Peters. To capture the strangenesses of Egypt for slightly more modern travellers, try the tiny story by Ethel Wilson, Haply the soul of my grandmother. Now that is eerie.


  1. This sounded really promising at first, but after reading your review I think I'll pass. I also like Elizabeth Peters! And I'll have to look for the Wilson book.

  2. I hope I wasn't too harsh but really, I did not like it.

    The Wilson is a short story, part of her collection entitled Mrs. Golightly and other stories, which includes my absolute favourite Wilson story ever, I Just love dogs.

  3. I always feel bad when I don't like a book, too, but it happens. Sorry--just read the last part of your post more carefully--the Wilson short story sounds great--perfect for the sort of stories I've been reading lately! I'll have to look for that collection.

  4. I've had this book for a while now, but not read it. It doesn't sound good at all. What a disappointment.

    Thanks for the review and the Elizabeth Peters and Ethel Wilson recommendations.

  5. I had the same reaction on reading this book Melanie - I couldn't believe her calm reaction to those two abusive men. Anna was such an unbelievable character, making so many idiotic mistakes for the sole purpose of moving the plot along. Bleh. I've never read any Elizabeth Peters, but I'll definitely check them out :-)

  6. Cee - whew, thank goodness it wasn't just me having a bad day. Hope you enjoy the EP books!

  7. Wow, that sounds awful, particularly the ending. I think I'd have been tempted to throw that one at the wall. Thanks for the review. I didn't miss the comment about a favorite story by the same author. Maybe she is (or was - don't know this author) more skilled at writing shorter works?

  8. I have read this book and I do agree with you about the ending but the book mentions that she has been brought up by a patronising father and then married a patronising husband she had recently split up with. Though Andy's behaviour may have frustrated her, it might have been all she was used too.

  9. Anonymous - good point...perhaps I should have taken that into account but honestly I don't think I read it closely enough...I was getting irritated by the characters.


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