Journey Down the Nile in ‘The Sacred River’

17729563The Sacred River by Wendy Wallace
Scribner, July 4, 2014 (Historical)*

My Rating: I’d go there again (4/5)

The Sacred River was a lovely historical novel, beautifully written, and totally evocative of colonial Egypt. It was a somber novel, filled with the themes of death; however, it ends with rebirth, bringing a sense of hope to the final chapters.

The novel focuses on a short period for three very different, but related women. First, we have Harriet Heron, a young woman, who has been bedridden for most of her life due to asthma. When her doctor hints that there’s very little that he can do for her, Harriet begs him to recommend to her parents that she should travel to a warmer climate to help her breathing. Harriet has long had a fascination with Egypt and would love to explore the city of Thebes before she dies.

Harriet’s mother, Louisa, is convinced that traveling to Egypt will help her daughter so she cautiously takes on the adventure without the accompaniment of her husband. What Louisa doesn’t count on is the resurrection of her past during the journey. A past she desperately doesn’t want anyone to kow about.

Lastly, Louisa’s sister-in-law and Harriet’s aunt, Yael, is also joining the ladies on the journey to Egypt. Yael is the last person to ever want to go on a spontaneous adventure, but her brother insists and Yael finds herself growing in the foreign city in an unexpected way. A staunch charity worker and devout woman, Yael finds herself learning much about the city and gaining a sense of freedom that she’s never before experienced.

The Scared River wasn’t really what I was expecting. I was thinking that this would be more of an adventure story, and to an extent it was, it just was an adventure of personal growth rather than the conquering of terrain. Each of the three women begin the novel as somewhat pathetic creatures, but through their respective journeys they each learn something about themselves and what they learn allows them to go forward into a new life.

On an intellectual level, I loved the use of the imagery in the novel: the use of the Nile as a symbol for a journey, and the scarab for rebirth. The theme of death kept the novel somber in tone, but the rebirths of all the characters at the end left you with a feeling of hope. For me, the structure of this novel was beautifully rendered. There was no question that this was a well-written novel.

However, on a less intellectual level, I wish I hadn’t had to leave the book just as things were changing for the characters. For most of the novel, I was waiting for Harriet, Louisa and Yael to come to realizations unique to their situations, and at the end they all got to that point, but readers aren’t treated to what happens after that. While I think part of the point of the novel was to end on the idea that life has changed for the three women, they have all experienced a rebirth varying degrees; I personally would have liked to know what their new life was like. But then again, that’s just the kind of reader I am. As it stands, I’ll just have to appreciate the beauty of the symbolism of this one.

In terms of the characters, they were all interesting, but I felt that I connected with Harriet the most. Perhaps it’s the that I’m closer in age to Harriet and have also been fascinated with Egypt, but it could also be the fact that out of the three, Harriet seemed to stand the best chance of really moving forward. Harriet was also the closest to death because of her asthma, and her gaining new life in Egypt, gave me the sense of hope that she can have a new and full life ahead of her.

Ultimately, The Sacred River was a wonderful piece of armchair travel and I feel like I was given a sense of Egypt in 1882. The historical setting was what immediately drew me to the title, but the crafting of the novel is what had me hooked. It’s not a happy or light book, but one that gets you thinking about the various manifestations of journeys that life can take.

*Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.

Similar Reads

Kate Furnivall’s Shadows on the Nile is another book set in Egypt and it had a similar tone to The Sacred River. The difference between the two, a mystery.

Shadows on the Nile

Since I loved the journey theme to The Sacred River, I think Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road would be a good choice if you also liked that theme. It’s also quite somber, but excellently written and the journey home plays such an important roll in the novel.

Three Day Road

Lastly, if you enjoyed the themes of death and rebirth, give Anna Hope’s Wake a try. Another somber book, but it also ends with a feeling of hope. The journey of several women’s lives coincides with the passage of the Unknown Warrior.



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