Dreamers of the Day
By Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 272 pp., $25
From the opening pages of Mary Doria Russell's novel "Dreamers of the Day," narrator Agnes Shanklin plunges us into the tumult of her world - America immediately before and after World War I. These were years, Agnes tells us, first of "hope and amazement," when science and technology seemed to make anything possible, then abruptly of suffering and loss as war and influenza shattered lives and swept away Victorian convention.
In the midst of the upheaval, Agnes finds her own life transformed. When her family is wiped out by the flu, she uses her inheritance to tour the Middle East, where her sister had once worked as a missionary. But first the modest schoolteacher does the unthinkable - she ventures into a department store, buys a stylish new wardrobe, and bobs her hair.
Agnes arrives in Cairo, with a dog in tow, just as luminaries Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and others are gathering to redraw the map of the Middle East and cobble together the nation of Iraq. She accidentally falls in with this group, and manages to strike up a friendship with Karl Weilbacher, a charming, mysterious German. In Karl's attentive presence, Agnes blossoms, even as she suspects he is a spy.
The twist is that Agnes is narrating her story in the afterlife. She writes as both memoirist and common-sense philosopher, recalling her past and pondering the state of the world, right up to the present day.
From the outside, Agnes seems an eccentric figure - a chatty spinster trotting about in far-off places with her little dachshund. But though Agnes likes to share a good story and the novel is filled with humor, Russell has not simply written a comic tale about a lovable heroine and her colorful adventures. And while the question of Karl's identity adds suspense, what compels our attention throughout is the play of Agnes's mind. She has learned to take nothing as given; she searches for fresh meanings in all she sees and hears. And she is not afraid to show us her soul.
Raised by a struggling mother, Agnes was taught to do her duty and expect little from life. From the moment she intrepidly goes shopping, she experiences a tug-of-war between the identity her mother has bestowed on her and a genuine self; Russell portrays the contest raging in Agnes's mind in a witty, inventive way.
Agnes speaks honestly as well about the sorts of commonplace experiences people rarely admit to: loneliness, shyness, feeling invisible. Nor is she embarrassed to acknowledge her long-frustrated desires and the pleasing discoveries she makes in middle age: "Travel can . . . set the soul in motion. . . . On foreign soil, desires . . . can be unbound. What hides beneath the paper-thin surface of our domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult." She decides it's time to let go of virtuous self-denial.
Agnes's newfound confidence does not bring her storybook happiness, but she doesn't seem to mind. She emerges from her travels and struggles sturdy and resilient, true to herself. In the afterlife, she looks back on the Cairo Conference and devotes much thought to "dreamers of the day" - Lawrence's phrase for leaders who "act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." Reflecting, in her matter-of-fact-way, on the hazards of imposing one's dreams on others, Agnes connects the politics of her own time with ours.
Judith Maas is a freelance writer and editor.