The treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb have visited London twice in my lifetime and I have seen them in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum as well, but to appreciate their full glory in a crowded gallery was always hard. However, during a recent visit to my Egyptologist daughter in a tourist-deprived Cairo, we found ourselves alone with the numinous artefacts, able to examine them in detail. They are surely the most beautiful grave goods ever excavated. They are also the subject of more novels than any other archaeological find. This latest addition to that list is based on the hunt for the tomb and the aftermath of its discovery. The story rests on a good deal of scrupulously researched fact. It is preceded by a cast list containing the names of more real than invented characters, and is followed by a three-page bibliography.
The narrator is Lucy, aged 11 in 1922, when she is sent to Egypt with a governess to convalesce from the illness that killed her mother. She meets Frances Winlock, the daughter of an American archaeologist, and the two girls become best friends. (My principal quibble with this otherwise persuasive tale is that Frances is unbelievably precocious and knowing for an eight-year-old.) They observe the activities of the grown-ups while not always understanding what they have seen. The narrative moves smoothly between the past and the present: Lucy, by now very old, looks back on her life and friendships and displays the ineradicable effects of her childhood experiences in Egypt.
This book contains all the traditional elements of a women’s blockbuster: a Cinderella-style, love-deprived heroine; a beautiful, promiscuous woman with neglected but adoring children; an exotic setting as well as plenty of travel, and a certain amount of mystery. But Sally Beauman is far too skilful to follow a formula and her version of what went on in the Valley of the Kings between the wars sticks closely to the recorded facts – which are, of course, quite as exciting as any a novelist could invent. Most of the characters also have the names of real people: Frances Winlock and her parents actually existed, as, of course, did the English archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, the Earl of Carnarvon.
Lord Carnarvon was a passionate collector. In 1907 he began financing Carter’s work in the Valley of the Kings, supervising excavations and hunting for Tutankhamen’s tomb. By 1922 very little had been found and Carter was warned that it would have to be his final season. In the nick of time, in late November, the tomb was discovered. Peering through a small hole in the doorway, Carter made the famous announcement that he could see ‘wonderful things’. They were wonderful indeed, from the tiniest artefacts to the gold and bejewelled shrines, weighing several tons, that now sit in the Egyptian Museum.
Intruders to the tomb were said to be cursed and in fact many of them did die, though not necessarily unnaturally or before their time. Lucy is in her hale nineties when she narrates this story. Interesting, unusual and informative, it is greatly enjoyable.