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Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love

If you like love stories, this is as good as it gets. Soueif intertwines two stories. The first is set in the early years of the twentieth century. Lady Anna Winterbourne – widow and orphan – comes to Egypt during the period of British occupation under Lord Cromer. There she meets Sharif al-Baroudi, a fervent Egyptian nationalist. They fall in love and have a child. Mixing in with this story is the story of Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif. Isabel has been left a trunk which contains various documents, including the letters of Anna, her journal and that of Layla, Sharif’s sister, and part of the novel is her reconstruction of the life of Anna and Sharif.

Isabel is not working alone. Some of the texts are, of course, in Arabic. She is falling in love with an Egyptian conductor, Omar al-Ghamrawi but it is with Omar’s sister, Amal, that she discovers not only the past of her great-grandparents but also Egyptian history (primarily the modern period when Egypt was under British occupation) and also what Egypt (and, to a certain extent, the Arab world) is now. She also, incidentally, discovers the link between her family and that of the al-Ghamrawis.

Soueif tells a beautiful story. Her love stories are never mawkish or slushy, her characters very real and she convincingly shows us that the course of history and the course of love is all too often murky and unclear, both to contemporaries and to later generations. What particularly impressed me is how convincingly she linked up the historical elements – both actual events as well as impressions of participants and observers – with her different stories and how well she evoked both the romantic and the real Egypt. A book of great style and great intellect but one that is, above all, a joy to read.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Bloomsbury