Harriet Heron’s life is almost over before it has even begun. At just twenty-three years of age, she is an invalid, over-protected and reclusive. Before it is too late, she must escape the fog of Victorian London for a place where she can breathe.
Together with her devoted mother, Louisa, her god-fearing aunt, Yael, and a book of her own spells inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Harriet travels to a land where the air is tinged with rose and gold and for the first time begins to experience what it is to live. But a chance meeting on the voyage to Alexandria results in a dangerous friendship as Louisa’s long-buried past returns, in the form of someone determined to destroy her by preying upon her daughter.
As Harriet journeys towards a destiny no one could have foreseen, her aunt Yael is caught up in an Egypt on the brink of revolt and her mother must confront the spectres of her own youth.
When I was 9, I visited The British Museum with my school class – we were studying the Egyptians and I was fascinated. We saw the Rosetta Stone, inscribed with the same message in three ancient languages – the key that unlocked the hieroglyphic writing that the Victorian archeologists – many of them amateur Egyptology enthusiasts – discovered adorning the walls of tombs, palaces and sacred places of worship along the course of the Nile and in the Valley of the Kings. Learning to write my name phonetically using pictures of palm fronds or waterfowl was like writing a magical incantation; in The Sacred River, Harriet Heron clearly feels the same way.
Despite being twenty-three, Harriet finds herself a young woman being treated like an infant by her anxious, over-protective mother. Egypt, and a journey along the eponymous sacred river, the Nile, is the destination that may help her survive the asthma that prevents her even venturing outside into smog-filled London streets. The England of Wallace’s novel is a place of contradiction: Christian values rub shoulders with visits to spiritualist mediums with messages from the dearly departed; art is revered and a blind eye is turned to the behaviour of male artists, while the reputation of their female muses can be permanently destroyed all too easily. In contrast, once they arrive, Egypt seems to be bright and light, somewhere Harriet can breathe – literally and figuratively.
There is a calm centre to the book, as Harriet gains in strength, confidence and independence
Reading The Sacred River felt, to me, like taking a holiday myself. The passion that bubbles throughout this novel is strong but it is always beneath the surface – with one or two notable exceptions. Although Louisa’s story is one of revelation – and her attempt to prevent it – there is a calm centre to the book, as Harriet gains in strength, confidence and independence, and Yael realises that, in Egypt, she can make a difference to society in a way that she never could have done at home.
Wallace’s narrative style is precise and clear, never exaggerated or ostentatious. Her characters felt real and rounded, their thoughts, feelings and motivations shown through their actions and speech, or desire to avoid it. I loved the time I spent with them.
Freedom is in the air in Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River as three women travel to Egypt, each finding different things amongst the heat and the sand.
When you first meet Harriet and witness the way that she is treated by her mother, I was taken aback by how much older she really was. She is treated as if she is a nothing but a young child and ultimately becomes trapped by her illness and the way her mother views her because of it. Harriet is defined purely by her illnesses alone and as a result, longs for the freedom of an adult life. She develops an interest in magic and the lives of Egyptian gods and it is a sad fact that she feels more free in the world of the unknown, the land of Ancient Egypt, than the place she used to call home.
Harriet can finally breathe and explore the world around her
Leaving Britain for the sake of Harriet’s health, they arrive in Egypt, one that felt alive and real, brimming with history and possibility. Harriet can finally breathe and explore the world around her, becoming a young, independent woman in the process. She is not alone in this as it felt like her aunt Yael can also spread her wings, making a difference amongst the local population and becoming more hands on in her charity work, far more than she could at home.
Harriet and Yael take full advantage of this new life but her mother Louisa is trapped by her dark past. Her desire to protect her daughter consumes her and she feels guided by the voices of those that have passed on, taking the word of the mediums as gospel. As Harriet and Yael grow in confidence, Louisa regresses, violently lashing out in an attempt to protect her past. It is a society where a woman’s reputation is everything and Louisa will go to any attempt to ensure her standing.
There was a real sense of place as the Egyptian surrounding are slowly revealed to us. I thoroughly enjoyed the sections exploring the archaeological digs and the mystery surrounding the newly discovered burial sites. I felt like I shared Harriet’s passion, for the past and also a new life, and longed that she would find what she is looking for. The other narrative threads were just as strong and carefully balanced before we reached the story’s masterful conclusion.