This long family saga set in Egypt and covering a period of 30-odd years is the sort of "good read" best kept for the ski lodge or sunny beach, when one's critical faculties have been left at home in a firmly locked drawer.
"Sakkara" tells the story of two well-to-do families, one British, the other Egyptian, who live as friends and neighbors in an affluent Cairo suburb. All concerned are decent, indeed high-minded, rich, cultured and the other things necessary in more benevolently inclined escape literature.
The younger generations of the two households naturally become attached to one another -- passionately, sexually and/or (and sometimes not quite) maritally. The scion (one is impelled to use the term) of the British household and the beautiful daughter of the Egyptian family have been in love all their lives but, for no good reason that I could find, make mistaken marriages to others. The lengthy knotting and undoing of these misalliances form the skeleton of the story, which is fleshed out with plenty of action, intrigue and general skulduggery.
With World War II and rumblings of discontent at British rule, the author plunges his characters into the revolutionary politics of Cairo. The hero becomes involved in "Intelligence" and with various friends, ranging from the madam of an expensive brothel to an American undercover agent. This latter character appears to have been dropped into the story like a pebble into a mud pie and serves as a sort of crew-cut eminence grise, turning up at all the right moments to save the snobbish British from the devious Egyptians, thus establishing the extraordinary fact that though the British have lived in Egypt all their lives, it takes a decent American from the Middle West to understand the convoluted Middle Eastern mind. (After all, the American book market had to be considered.)
At the same time the heroine's marriage (to the brother of the hero) goes badly wrong, the hero's wife ups and leaves him. But as hero and heroine have been enjoying more than just each other's company all along, it doesn't much matter. Then the heroine's husband dies in such a manner that "it was the best possible thing that could have happened to him," and the heroine finds herself exiled to America, where she marries a millionaire. Then . . . but no doubt you will remember your free afternoons before the TV set and have some notion of what happens next.
Barber's knowledge of Egypt and the times he describes is adequate to give the tale some dynamism apart from the exigencies of the absurdly cliched plot, and the improbable ups and downs of the love affair are rendered less tedious by historical asides and social description. I found the dreadful King Farouk much the most interesting character and read -- with a fascination untouched by the incredulity evoked by the fictional characters -- of his gargantuan appetite for women, food and wealth. The heroine, naturally, is threatened by her ruler's "lust," and to save her virtue she shoots the king's nasty procurer. This leads neatly (but over a couple of hundred pages) to the final crisis -- a court case in which the said procurer's evil wife has charged the heroine (who, little silly, is now free of yet another husband and has returned to Egypt) with murder. A good courtroom scene ensues, with plenty of twists.
Deserts are never actually featureless, so I will not say the prose is as flat as Egypt's sands. But flat it is and carelessly structured and repetitive. All the characters, of whatever race or age, talk in the same interchangeable tone of voice. Both dialogue and narrative are liberally sprinkled with Woosterish adjectives, such as "marvelous" and "splendid," which gives the whole thing an air of fusty datedness without lending a spark of historical verisimilitude. Clothes, food and drink are described in great detail in the hope, perhaps, that somewhere under or among them a real person will be found to lurk. Sex rears its expected head at regular intervals, very explicit and as varied as most could wish for, but described with a ghastly coyness that is difficult to stomach.
Despite all this, the book has pace, and while I cannot pretend I panted to turn the pages, I did not have to struggle to keep at it to the end. Abandon all thoughts of a latter-day Durrell, dear holiday-maker, and, if you must, enjoy a wallow in an exotically situated but familiarly unbelievable "Dallas." The publicity blurb says that both of Noel Barber's previous novels have been international best sellers, and I can well believe it.