Francis King

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05 December 2013
464 pages

Three women—daughter, mother and aunt—abandon their pampered, privileged lives in The Hague of the 1860s, to set off on an epic journey to the heart of Africa. Since the daughter, Alexine, has inherited a vast fortune from her mysterious tycoon father, the women take with them the family butler and nurse and each her own personal maid. In Cairo they recruit a staff of more than a hundred.

The male explorers of the day at first mock at so audacious a trespass into what has previously been an almost exclusively male preserve. Then they begin to accord the trio a grudging admiration for their initiative, courage and endurance. Had she been born into a different class, the mother might have made a successful career as a concert pianist. The aunt, unmarried, once had an unhappy love-affair with Tsar Alexander II.

The travellers go through a series of now exhilarating, now bizarre and now terrifying adventures, as indomitably they push on with what becomes an exploration not merely of uncharted Africa but of their own innermost selves. Eventually tragedy engulfs each of them in turn.

In this richly inventive novel, Francis King deployed all his formidable skills as a storyteller in bringing to vivid life both these three real-life characters and the extraordinary diversity of imagined people—European adventurers, Arab slave-traders, Egyptian porters, African tribesmen—met on their odyssey.

‘It is a rare pleasure to know from the first page of a new novel that you are in for a treat. Francis King immediately grabs the reader’s attention with an apparently effortless mastery’ Louise Guinness, Evening Standard