THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING by Kate Pullinger (McArthur), 250 pages, $24.95 paper. Rating: NNN
Here's the third 2009 major prizewinner to demonstrate the strange goings on among jury members. Not that there's anything wrong with The Mistress Of Nothing, this year's English-language Governor General's Award fiction winner. It's an absorbing story of love and power, beautifully written, but it sags at the end.
Based on real characters, the novel tells the story of Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon, a passionate intellectual suffering from tuberculosis who moves to Egypt for her health in the early 1860s with her maid, Sally Naldrett. There, Sally falls in love with Omar, their Egyptian dragoman (translator and guide), with disastrous consequences for this fascinating triangle.
The book, written in Sally's voice, is a meditation on power, love and naïveté spiced with a large dose of culture clash, all intriguing themes. And Pullinger's descriptive gifts are impressive. Sally's first impressions of Alexandria put you right there.
But Pullinger lets fact get in the way of fiction. Yes, Sally's healthy, and that, ultimately, gives her some power, but even taking that into account, things get a little too tidy.
And really, if you're not going to honour Alice Munro's superlative stories with the award - presumably because she's won it so many times - why put her on the short list in the first place?
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