Thanks to an open book club event run by Book-ish in Crickhowell earlier this year, I read Katherine Webb’s The English Girl when it came out in hardback. Actually, thinking about it, a friend lent me their proof copy because I was so eager to read it before the event, and meeting Katherine. It was the first book of hers that I’d read, although she was an author whose novels I’d been meaning to read for some time – three were waiting patiently on my bookshelves – and the event bumped her up to the top of the TBR pile. Shortly after finishing The English Girl, I bought the remaining two so that I wasted no further time in reading her entire backlist. You can probably guess from all of this that I absolutely loved The English Girl, and because it’s out in paperback today, not only am I going to share my review of it but I’m also going to do a giveaway because when you find a great book, you want other people to read it and this’ll make it easier for one of you.
Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled her lifelong dream to travel to Arabia and has arrived in the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin and unearth the wonders held within.
But Oman is a land lost in time, and in the midst of violent upheaval gaining permission to explore could prove impossible. Joan’s disappointment is only eased by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing the stories that captured her imagination and sparked her ambition as a child.
The friendship that forms between the two women will change everything. Both have desires to fulfil and secrets to keep. As their bond grows, Joan is inspired by the thrill of her new friend’s past and finds herself swept up in a bold and dangerous adventure of Maude’s making. Only too late does she begin to question her actions – actions that will spark a wild, and potentially devastating, chain of events.
Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?
What I love about historical fiction is that it often provides me with heroines who I wouldn’t find in or have heard about from history books, shining a light on either overlooked or little known women. And even in the case of fictional heroines, whether or not they’re inspired by real women of the time, hearing the story of a certain time and place from a female perspective, which can be quite different to how their male counterparts would have experienced things, helps me question and hopefully expand my understanding of other places and cultures at various periods throughout history. (And no, I’m not taking novels as fact in the place of history books but they can help bring it alive in a way that sparks an interest into a novel’s events and background which, in turn, leads to further reading and research.) In The English Girl, despite its title, there are not one, but two pioneering women, even if the more modern of the two doesn’t start out intending to be as adventurous and as much of a risk-taker as she ultimately turns out to be.
In 1958, Joan Seabrook arrives in Muscat with her fiance, Rory, hoping to see the desert fort of Jabrin but no idea how she’s going to get there and with huge bureaucratic, societal and cultural obstacles in her way. While kicking her heels in Muscat, she discovers that one of her childhood idols, explorer Maude Vickery, lives there. She manages to wangle a visit and, after rather an unpromising start, a friendship, or perhaps more of an alliance, results. I continually had to question how balanced the friendship was and looked especially hard at Maude’s motivation. There are times when she uses Joan, putting her at great personal risk with seemingly little thought for the consequences, and yet despite appearing to be the innocent abroad, Joan, too, has an agenda of her own that she’s working towards.
There’s a real sense of jeopardy throughout the novel as the two women test their mental and physical strength, challenging themselves and those around them. Both Joan and Maude share a propensity to push up against the boundaries of their own society’s sense of propriety at the time, as well as that of the country in which they’re both little more than tolerated guests, to a greater or lesser extent. But they’re also different in many ways and have their own paths to follow.
The English Girl alternates between the two women’s stories, switching from Maude’s time crossing the desert at the turn of the twentieth century and Joan’s attempts to take a trip to the desert in 1958. Katherine Webb brings the period and Muscat to life in her descriptions, and you hear the sounds of the market, and smell the streets of Muscat as Joan makes her way carefully through them. Where the book really comes into its own is when we venture out into the desert, whether with Maude or later with Joan. I have to confess that while I love deserted sand dunes and wide sandy beaches, I’d never quite understood the appeal of mile upon mile of the stuff or what attraction desert landscapes held. But after having read Katherine Webb’s descriptions of the desert and the effect it has on her characters, which read like poems or songs to the desert, I am some way towards understanding its powerful lure. To the extent that I’d like to go and experience that hushed quiet, that stillness, the vastness of it all, and the idea of being all alone in the world, on the edge of the world, for myself. Don’t you just it when a book does that to you? Challenges your preconceived ideas and prejudices, all while telling you not one, but two, cracking adventure stories.
The English Girl is Katherine Webb’s sixth novel and it’s published by Orion in paperback today. It’s available from Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop like Book-ish), Waterstones and some supermarkets. It’s also available in hardback and as an ebook. You can find out more about the author and her books by following her on Facebook or Twitter.
I’ve got one paperback of The English Girl to give away to a reader in the EU. All you have to do is to leave a comment below, and make sure when you’re commenting to use a valid email address you check regularly, so I can contact you if you’re the lucky recipient. I’ll pick a winner at 6pm on Tuesday 23rd November.