There are some books which just have an undefinable, almost ethereal quality. The Cairo Diary is one of them. Whilst not initially that appealing, it somehow gets under your skin and ends up being a memorable, compulsive read - surely the best kind of book there is.
The Cairo Diary is set both in the past and in the present. In the present day Marion, a young woman, hides in a monastery to escape a scandal she has caused. Once there, she stumbles across a diary, written by an English policeman in Cairo in 1928. It contains details of an investigation into a horrific series of child murders... murders which someone in the present would rather remained in the past.
Initially, I struggled to get into The Cairo Diary, as it proceeds at a rather slow pace. To all outward appearances, it seems as though it's going to be a typical by-the-numbers treasure hunt book, before it veers off into a historical detective tale. Opening chapters take a little time to set up the basic plot and characters and the constant oblique references to the scandal which Marion has caused is initially frustrating for its lack of specifics.
Yet, it is precisely this element of suspense which turns out to be one of the book's key strengths. Flitting between 1920s Egypt and 21st Century France, the reader is gradually given more and more hints as to what is going on. As Marion reads further and further into the diary, we have a greater idea of what is happening in the past, and this piques our sense of interest, as we find things out at exactly the same time that she does. Similarly, in the present, Marion's reluctance to reveal the true reason for her presence in the monastery keeps us interested.
This slow-burning plot might cause some initial frustration if you are used to faster paced plots, but stick with it because the tension and intrigue the book generates is far more satisfying than any slick, Dan Brown-style thriller.
The weaving of past with present works well for the most part. There are a few clumsy interludes where the transition between the two is not handled well (along the lines of "as she drifted off to sleep, she found her mind returning to Cairo in 1928..."), but for the most part, the two parts of the novel are joined together relatively seamlessly.
Chattam also displays some genuinely impressive linguistic skills to help distinguish between the two separate (but connected) elements. The passages set in the present read and feel very different to the excerpts Marion is reading from the diary. The two parts of the book actually feel as though they were written by two different people - a difficult thing to achieve.
Unlike many books, The Cairo Diary offers no safe ending and is happy to leave lots of threads dangling. Done badly, this can be very unsatisfying, leaving the reader feeling as though they have wasted their time on an unfinished narrative. Done well, as it is here, it can be highly effective, inviting the reader to supply their own ending, based on the facts they have read.
It's this path that The Cairo Diary chooses. The plight of Marion is advanced, but unresolved by the end of the book, whilst the ending to the 1928 mystery is almost multiple choice. The book offers a number of possibilities and leaves the reader the option of picking the one they most prefer. Best of all, each of these endings has very different implications for the way you interpret what you have read and shows how truth and lies can often be almost the same thing. These multiple endings are very well handled and each time a new possibility is revealed, it pulls the rug from under your feet once more, leaving you to question your latest interpretation.
Of course, such an open-ended finish to a 350 page novel will still annoy some intently. If you're the kind of person who likes everything neatly wrapped up by the final page and books where the hero/heroine gets their girl/man, then you might hate The Cairo Diary. If you like something that's not afraid to make you think, then you are in for a treat.
This was yet another of those serendipitous books I picked up somewhere in a charity shop and would probably never have read under normal circumstances. Thank heavens for charity shops and their almost endless capacity to surprise, as it meant I had the chance to unearth this little treasure.
The Cairo Diary
© Copyright SWSt 2011