Editor’s note; Kaetrin was so intrigued by Shadows on the Nile that she asked to pen a more extensive review than our usual fare. It’s a discussion not only of the audiobook but a look into Historical Mysteries as well.
Narrated by Alison Larkin
I’ve barely read any historical books in the last year or so and most of the ones I have consumed have been in audio format. For some reason, I can listen to books that might not otherwise make it to the top of my TBR pile (which is ridiculously large). But Shadows on the Nile caught my interest because it’s not the usual Regency fare – it is set in 1932 (a period I know very little about) and partly in Egypt (a place I know very little about) so I thought it worth a go.
I should say up front that I don’t read that many mysteries and I have only passing familiarity with the genre. My husband loves to watch all the British TV mystery shows (Poirot, Inspector Frost, etc). They bore me to tears (well, except for Jonathan Creek – him I like). I’m a romance reader first and foremost but I liked the historical aspect of Shadows on the Nile and since I was promised a romance in the blurb, I was prepared to dive into the mystery.
Also, I’m really bad at solving the mysteries but then, I don’t really know the mystery genre conventions. I approached every single character, with the exception of Jessica Kenton (the heroine), as being suspicious. Every. Single. One. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to do that. I mentally interrogated every action as a possible clue or red herring, because I’m not experienced enough to know what I could be relaxed about. I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes (my husband has. Of course) – I know the Robert Downey Jr. movies and the Benedict Cumberbatch TV shows (him I like too) but I’m not a Conan Doyle aficionado.
The story starts with seven-year-old Jessie Kenton waking up in the night to find herself locked in her room and hearing her younger brother, five-year-old Georgie, wailing. The next morning he is gone and in his place is Timothy, also five, her “new brother”. It is clear that Georgie has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (perhaps not quite as socialized as Rain Man but closer to him than Don Tillman from The Rosie Project). He didn’t behave as a “proper son” and Mr. and Mrs. Kenton, essentially, traded him in for a new one. Thereafter, they refuse to talk to Jessie or anyone about Georgie. It is as if he never existed.
Fast forward twenty years – Jessie is now twenty-seven, sharing a flat in Putney with her friend, jazz saxophonist Tabitha and working in graphic design. It is a testament to the fact that most of the historicals I have read or listened to have been set in the Regency era as I was somewhat aghast at this until I realised we were now in 1932! I know so little about the period, other than it was during the depression that I cannot say for certain if Jessie’s lifestyle was portrayed accurately. It seemed authentic to me.
Jessie has a close relationship with her brother, Timothy, who works at the British Museum as an Egyptologist. She has never forgotten Georgie but she doesn’t actively look for him either – something that wasn’t ever explained to my satisfaction. Jessie also has the ominous sensation that someone is watching her. (cue scary music).
Timothy attends a séance and thereafter, seems to disappear off the face of the earth. When their father contacts Jessie looking for Tim, she decides she must investigate and find him. I suppose, she was of the view that losing one brother was unfortunate but losing two was just careless.
Her search leads her to Chamford Court (a rundown ancestral pile owned by Sir Montague (Monty) Chamford) the venue of the séance. The reader knows almost immediately that Monty is hiding something from Jessie but it takes most of the book to find out what. We’re aware that he knows more than he is saying and that he had something to do with Timothy’s disappearance, but just how responsible or what his involvement means is very murky indeed. In fact, Jessie works out fairly early that Monty isn’t being completely honest but she nevertheless enlists his aid to find her brother.
The Kenton siblings are experts in the field of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the clues Jessie follows are Holmesian ones and for the most part, they didn’t mean much to me. Jessie makes a rather extraordinary deduction at one point (and I don’t think it is my lack of experience in the mystery genre which accounts for my surprise) which convinces her that Timothy is in Egypt and therefore she decides to go there. Even more extraordinarily, Monty goes too. That represents the single biggest weakness of the book for me. They obviously both had to get to Egypt but why they went was such a shot in the dark I still don’t know why Jessie felt so fervently certain about it.
Most of the book is told from Jessie’s third person (past tense) perspective, with some important parts told from Monty’s or Timothy’s third person POV. These perspectives are interspersed with the second person (present tense) POV of Georgie who has been in an institution from the night Timothy took his place in the Kenton family. Timothy found Georgie when they were both fifteen and he has since been visiting every Saturday. Tim doesn’t tell Jessie about Georgie at Georgie’s own request.
I have very little experience with second person perspective. Georgie’s portions are written to Tim. For example, he might say “you look at me and I cannot understand your expression”. It was very effective and I don’t know how much of that was because I was listening as opposed to reading. This perspective lends itself to audiobooks so I think that must be at least part of it. I do find listening to audiobooks a peculiarly intimate experience, well suited to first person narration and, as it turns out, second person too.
Alison Larkin does a very good job with her narration. Her voicing of Georgie is a little lower and a little more… not slow… precise? … considered? Something. Georgie thinks a lot. He is quite literal and writes down everything he’s thinking, hearing, or seeing. He often doesn’t understand facial expressions or colloquialism but he translates that which he does not understand to paper such that the listener has a fair idea of what’s happening.
It is in this section that we come to know Tim as well – through his interactions with Georgie. He is remarkably patient and understanding with his brother but, at the same time, he expects things from him and treats him like a person, not a disability, not an imbecile (as someone late in the story does). Georgie has an excellent memory (probably eidetic) and is gifted in mathematics and languages.
I gathered from this that Georgie must have had some schooling in the institution and it made me even more curious about Mr. Kenton senior. It is clear that he has and continues to pay for Georgie’s care. He doesn’t speak his name or ever visit but he also didn’t entirely throw Georgie away either. I wondered how, after years of paying those bills, he continued to justify his actions.
Georgie is a fascinating character. He is clearly quite disabled. He doesn’t like to be touched nor does he cope well with shouting, anger, or loud noises. If he feels threatened emotionally, mentally, or physically, he will hide in his closet and put a blanket over his head. At one point, Georgie says very matter of factly, “You shout the last four words and I, wrap tissue paper around my head”. The delivery of it, as much as the words on the page, make these kinds of passages so very effective. It indicates that it is entirely normal behaviour for Georgie – behaviour that comforts and soothes him. But it is also indicative that Georgie has special needs. I have only passing knowledge of Autism Spectrum Disorders but for what it’s worth, here it seemed authentically displayed (in that it made sense and felt realistic – I don’t make the mistake – and I don’t think the author did either – of believing that autism is a monolith). As much as I became very fond of Georgie, it is clear that he would need extra support and a calm environment to thrive. In 1932, treatment for autism was very different than it is now, of course, and I felt awful for Georgie, enduring ice baths and who knows what medication, and growing up so very lonely – with literally no affection between the ages of five and fifteen.
It is difficult for me to talk with authority about ableism, but I think generally, there was a broad range of reactions to Georgie that represented the period and various reactions to disability. My feeling was that Tim wanted to encourage Georgie to do all he could do and be all he could be, while accepting him as he was.
Because Tim is such a staunch supporter of Georgie, he won my approval. And Georgie renders Tim dispassionately in that, as much as Georgie clearly cares for Tim, he does not present other than the facts when talking about his brother, so I felt I had a fair barometer of the man.
It is also true to say that, in general, the “good characters” were the ones who were nice to Georgie and the “bad” characters were not. This was also true (broadly) in the aspects of the story that dealt with Colonialism in Egypt and the rise of the union movement in the UK and the unrest over the means test. Jessie and Monty had liberal attitudes which reflected a more modern sensibility (although it was also period appropriate). The “bad guys” were all “Rule Britannia” and “down with the working man!” This bothered me a little. While it was nice to see a more modern sensibility reflected in the narrative, I also felt it ended up being a kind of moral codex. The only exception to this was that Monty’s treatment of the Egyptian beggars and occasionally, of the Egyptian boy Malik, was less than savoury (swatting them with a fly switch to get them away for example). I wondered if that was also a code – we know that Monty isn’t entirely a white-hatted hero. Was that moral repugnance a reflection of the deliberate choice on the author’s part to keep Monty’s motivations and culpability (if any) a secret until the very last minute? In other words, was it a way to keep this listener unbalanced and on her toes?
Jessie, on the other hand, is always “good”. She has the most modern of sensibilities. I didn’t find her a Mary Sue however. She felt to me, to be a well-rounded character but I also felt the internal code of the book was constantly reminding me she was the heroine of the story, in the same way that some romance books indicate the “specialness” of the heroine by having her be the only one the hero is attracted to.
Jessie and Monty do have a romantic storyline too. It felt smoothly integrated into the story and because there were occasional glimpses of Monty’s perspective, his affection for Jessie was always clear. The love and connection between them seemed to grow relatively slowly but when I think back, the period of time the book mostly covers is quite short. Nonetheless, my impression was that they weren’t rash and there was no instalove. I appreciated that Monty was protective of Jessie and that he consciously tried to not let that be a barrier to Jessie doing what she needed to do. That said, I was invested in the relationship before I knew Monty was a good bet so this did lead to some concern for Jessie.
I quite liked Alison Larkin’s narration. She has had mixed reviews (including from me) but it worked very well here. Her male character voices weren’t terribly deep but they were (mostly) well differentiated. In preparation for this review, I re-listened to a couple of snippets and noticed then that sometimes Georgie and Jessie sounded the same. This wasn’t a huge problem since the POV changes had long section or chapter breaks in between. (That is to say, Georgie’s perspective wouldn’t suddenly pop up in the middle of Jessie’s.) Also, the tenses were different and this was another indicator of change.
So, while sometimes the siblings sounded alike, they were always very distinctly different at the beginning and end of their respective sections, such that I felt well oriented in the story.
At times a print book can deliver a sense of suspense that would be difficult for an audio (or even a movie) to match. For example, a deliberate ambiguity of a character’s gender is harder to convey in audio format – that is, the cat is out of the bag before the big reveal in the book. Similarly, when there is a character who is portrayed a particular way early in the story and referred to as “Mr. Smith” (for example) and then later, a person who sounds exactly the same and who is clearly the villain but is only referred to as “the tall man” (for example), his true identity is revealed at a much earlier point in the story than the author intended. In print, we don’t know for sure that they are the same person until the author chooses to reveal such.
So there were plot elements that would have worked better in print but at the same time, there were other things that proved to be more effective in audio – mainly, the portions from Georgie’s POV.
Shadows on the Nile is a somewhat slowly-evolving novel even though the timeline is fairly short. In audio format, I am a more patient consumer and, because I don’t skim, I felt better about the clues I did and did not pick up in the story. In print I would likely have assumed I read over them. The narration delivery was better than the story and it elevated the book for me. Kate Furnivall is an author I’d like to try again, but I’m more likely to stick to audio in my future forays.
Book Content: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in (but only barely)
Genre: Historical Mystery with a Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Shadows on the Nile was provided to AudioGals for review by Tantor Audio.