Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: Down the Nile

Down the Nile: alone in a fisherman's skiff by Rosemary Mahoney
2.5 stars

Reasons for reading: book club; late Nonfiction entry for Triple 8 Challenge

Description (from Publishers Weekly): "...the reader is taken on a great trip with an erudite travel companion soaking up scads of history, culture and literary knowledge, along with the scenery. The genesis for the trip is simple: the author's love of rowing. Her plan, "to buy a small Egyptian rowboat and row myself along the 120-mile stretch of river between the cities of Aswan and Qena," is less so. Mahoney (The Singular Pilgrim; Whoredom in Kimmage) conveys readers along the longest river in the world, through narrative laced with insight, goodwill and sometimes sadness. Mahoney's writing style is conversational, her use of metaphor adept. She cleverly marshals the writings of numerous river travelers but focuses on "two troubled geniuses": Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. The device allows readers a backward glance at the Edwardian travel accoutrements of sumptuous riverside dinners, staggering supplies of alcohol and food, trunks of books and commodious accommodations. The physical environment is demanding. "When I removed my hat, the sun had made the top of my head sting... it was like having a freshly baked nail driven into one's skull." Yet her biggest obstacle isn't the climate but the slippery hurdles of culture and sex. Whether struggling to buy a boat, visiting historic Luxor or rowing, innocent encounters become sticky psychological and philosophical snares."

My thoughts: This is a late entry because I'm just not going to finish the last nonfiction book on my list in time, so I substituted this one, since I realized it was a nonfiction book read during the challenge period. I read it in the summer, so my memory's a bit fuzzy, but it definitely wasn't one of my favourites. The Edwardian parts got a bit long (though I did learn that Florence Nightingale was quite a remarkable and interesting woman and Flaubert a whiny little thing who wanted his mama) and I have no real interest in Egypt, so that didn't help.

But the whole journey seemed rather pointless to me. It took her as long to get a rowboat as it did to row down the small part of the Nile she traveled. Plus, she wasn't alone, she had to have a man in a boat follow her before she could go at all. Her determination to do it seemed misplaced to me, rather like the answer, "Because it's there." about climbing a mountain, which I've never found convincing. She didn't seem to enjoy it much. And the book ended very suddenly, with her going home rather depressed. She did have a good quote from (I think) Flaubert about being glad to go home at the end of a trip (I've definitely felt that, you sometimes do just want it to be over with if it's been a long journey) but the whole thing left me wondering why I'd had to read about it if she hadn't even enjoyed it firsthand.

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