Wednesday 25 February 2009

Book Review: Maxim Chattam – The Cairo Diary

I have never heard of this writer or book despite the “international best-seller” tag but the mention of Cairo in the title and the cover had me interested immediately (shallow I know). I have to admit part of the reason was my curiosity about Egypt because of blogs such as those of Umm Travis, Mama Mona and Ange.

The book is set in 1920’s Cairo and modern-day France. Marion is a Parisian who is whisked away by the secret police to an isolated monastery for her own protection after a scandal that rocks Paris. For most of the book we are not told who or what it is she is hiding from. Her arrival at the monastery is swiftly followed by someone leaving a cryptic note on her bed which leads her to a secret hiding place near an old tower. This seems to be an odd dead end however as we hear no more regarding these games. Whilst in the monastery she is enlisted to help with categorising the crumbling old books bequeathed to the brotherhood and comes across an old copy of a Edgar Allen Poe novel which actually hides the diary of Jeremy Matheson, a police detective stationed in Cairo in 1928.

The diary details the discovery of four horrifically murdered children and the subsequent police investigation. The terrified native Cairene’s are convinced the murderer is a ghoul of some kind; the British convinced they have a deranged serial killer on the loose who must be stopped before a European is hurt.

Both of the settings are absolutely wonderful: the devastating storms that batter the remote maze-like old monastery on one hand and the exotic, colourful and rich atmosphere of Cairo at the peak of its archaeological discoveries (think Art Deco, the discovery of Tutankhamen and pre-War decadence):

“His point of reference were in the line of minarets on the rooftops, in the songs of the muezzins that punctuated the day in a less martial manner than Big Ben, in the splendor of an Englishman’s life amongst the Arabs. And also of the daily spice that wafted in from the desert onto all their heads: the threat of a danger that might rise up at any moment, in any possible form.” P.69

The detective story element in the book had me riveted, I really wanted to know who the murderer was. Despite this, the book was not without flaws. In many places the writing was almost bad enough to make me cringe:

“She took her shower and saw the cotton-wool clouds thinning out beneath her window as she emerged from the bathroom. The carpet of innocence was flowing back towards the sea.” p.97

“I am an orphan from Alexandria, a little girl with foreign parents who abandoned me in this land where I am nothing, and I have become a respectable woman…I have climbed the steps of this world without any help” p.277

Also, whilst the Cairo story is fairly engrossing, the story of Marion as she wanders about the monastery seeing hooded figures in corners is less so. This means that every time Chattam breaks off from the diary bringing you back to the modern world, you experience a sense of frustration at having to wait for the story to take off again.

Another sore point was the treatment of the Egyptians by the author. They are either poverty-stricken, hashish-addled or superstitious (like the imam). Later they demand independence and are portrayed as barbaric savages. I would expect this from an author writing in the 1920’s, but certainly not today. Despite this I was still surprised to come across this line:

“An old Arab, who started insulting him in the language of the Prophet Mohammed” p.281

I just did not see the point of the reference and it highlighted the lack of thorough research on the part of the writer. In the end I could not help thinking that perhaps this would have been better as a conventional thriller or horror novel set entirely in the 1920’s Cairo setting. There are also a number of other stories which are left half told which could have made great novels in themselves – Jeremy’s past, the story of his love interest Jezebel (yes, that was actually her name) and the story of the “ghoul” amongst others.


  1. thats very interesting, subhanAllah! Thanx for sharing. I also have a few books on Egypt to read, but havent been able to get there yet. You read so quickly ma sha Allah

  2. MashAllah for your book keeps my bookcase diversified but sometimes I do get frustrated if my public library does not carry a certain book. Luckily, the Cairo Diary is checked I just have to wait until the library opens...which is not until noon today :-(

  3. Assalam-alaikam,

    Sister Umm Travis,
    I love reading and sharing my views on books. I'm very curious now about the books you mention.
    I read in the gaps in the day because I am so impatient and can't sit quietly, so on the bus journey, in the morning whilst my computer takes half an hour to load, during my lunch hour...

    Umm Nassim,
    I know how you feel. My local library is enormous but seesm to specialise in Mills and Boon and large print. The one next to my work is tiny and more than half the books are in Urdu, Chinese, Malayalam, Polish, Hindi, Bengali and Gujerati so I am struggling to find something I can go crazy over.
    I'm still looking for Three Cups of Tea and Gargoyle.