Enid Shomer’s Twelve Rooms of the Nile examines the private lives and thoughts of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they travel up the Nile River through Egypt in1850. The novel begins before either of them are famous for the great works of their lives (innovating nursing and Madame Bovary, respectively), and they are sorting through the turmoil of their experiences in order to find the selves with which they are most comfortable, and determining the best way to make their mark on the world. In Shomer’s richly detailed imaginings the two meet (even though they didn’t in real life), and though outwardly they are nothing alike, they discover common emotional ground, and form a dynamic, addictive relationship which takes them by surprise. It remains to be seen whether their personalities and ambitions will allow for a relationship that can be sustained in the future.
Shomer has written an erudite and engaging work of historical fiction which serves to immerse readers in the psychological workings of two dynamic figures in history. Flaubert is haunted by the death of his sister in childbirth, troubled by the abrupt loss of an intimate friendship, and more stifled by an overbearing mother. While traveling he ruminates upon situations which have brought him to his current state, his failure to engage a larger audience with his writing, the contentious nature of his relationship with his travel companion, his sexual obsessions and conflicted views about relationships with women. Nightingale’s mind is no less uneasy as concerned as she is with the delicate state of her relationship with a family intent on rejecting her stunning ambition, curiosity, blunt manner of speaking and unladylike lack of restraint. Nightingale suffers deeply from depression, and often finds it crippling in combination with crafting a life that doesn’t include marriage – at the cost of heartbreak, the loss of a close personal friend, and evading the plans of her parents.
Shomer provides fascinating insight in the Nightingale and Flaubert, and is no less dazzling in her descriptions of the culture, food, clothing and traditions of the different people and guides the parties encounter on their sojourn on the Nile. Each of her sentences is imbued with intellectualism, history, philosophy, snappy repartee and fascinating historical tidbits. Shomer’s thorough research is stunning, and sometimes daunting even as she creates a plausible connection between Nightingale and Flaubert. My only complaint with this beautifully written and compelling debut is the intensity of the narrative, which felt overwhelmingly packed at times. Recommended.