I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk right now and enjoying it greatly; it’s a long, rich, satisfying read, about a family in Cairo after World War I (although I had to look up the date, which I couldn’t figure out from the novel itself — this is probably my fault for not getting historical references). It’s the kind of book you can live with for a long time; it moves slowly but in a good way, giving you lots of detail about setting and character. It feels like a Victorian novel in a lot of ways, as one of its main preoccupations is getting the young people properly married.
Its resemblance to Victorian novels is making me realize that I’ve been reading an awful lot about how much life used to suck for women — which is not to say that it doesn’t suck today, at least for some, especially outside of the Western world. But still — Palace Walk right after The Crimson Petal and the White reminds me of just how grim life could be. Yesterday I wrote about how Faber’s novel describes the impossibilities women faced in Victorian society, so I won’t repeat that. In Palace Walk, the situation seems even worse, although the women in the novel haven’t yet expressed any dissatisfaction. Here, the two young daughters, as respectable women eligible for marriage, are not allowed to be seen by any man, not even through through a window. They spend their days in the house, mostly doing housework, as far as I can tell. They have little education. The mother — the whole family actually — defers to every whim and desire of the father. The mother is little more than a glorified servant.
I’m not surprised by this at all, but it does make me long to read something with a more feminist bent to it, and soon. I remember people mentioning that Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness has an interesting take on gender; perhaps this is a good possibility?