three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
user_rating: 
0

Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff

A-Down the NileDown the Nile recounts Rosemary Mahoney’s 120-mile journey in a rowboat from Aswan northward to Qena, two Egyptian cities steeped in the region’s long history. Recounting the travels of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, Mahoney parallels her own experience with the more luxurious 19th-century expeditions on the world’s longest river. On her own journey, she encounters difficulty finding a suitable boat and spends much of her time coping with the advances of Egyptian men who see a lone Western woman as an easy target. Harassed, molested, and propositioned, Mahoney meets Amr, a Nubian captain who offers use of his rowboat and ensures her safe passage on the route. Mahoney’s memoir meditates on travel, history, and the vast cultural chasm that can fuel mistrust and fear.
Little, Brown. 273 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 031610745X

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Mahoney, who has been rowing for 10 years, brilliantly juxtaposes an account of her own palm-blistering hours on the Nile … with the diary entries of two Victorian travelers—Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale. … This intriguing book encompasses far more than Mahoney’s hours on the Nile and a delicious recounting of the river’s history." Lisa Fugard

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"[Mahoney’s] rich, knowing voice conveys an understanding of the fundamental cultural differences between modern Egypt and the modern West and, at the same time, a sense that we are all human, despite the differences that divide us. If Mahoney hasn’t landed herself atop the list of great American travel writers, she has written captivatingly about a journey few would have the courage to make." Charles Gershman

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"On the water, Mahoney’s flair for description coaxes reverence and wonder, at once delicate, opalescent miniatures of her surroundings, though with the chew and savoriness of nougat. She also displays a felicity for drawing history into the mix, flashing sequins of background color: Her retelling of the moment Napoleon’s troops first fell eyes on the Temple of Karnak and burst into spontaneous applause is heart-gladdening in the extreme." Peter Lewis

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As sharp as she is, Mahoney doesn’t scruple to qualify her generalizations. But when she hits her stroke, the book unfurls a poetry of perception." Karen R. Long

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mahoney seems to emerge almost mystically for us out of a pristine bubble. She tells us almost nothing about her life or loves or heartache. … What is evident throughout her captivating narrative is that we are in the presence of a ferociously independent and restless spirit, someone who cherishes nature and history and travel and adventure, and who bristles at the restrictions placed on women all around the globe." Elaine Margolin

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Mahoney’s] cursory excursions into Egyptian culture and the history of Western travelers on the Nile begin to seem like so much padding. … Visitors like this American, free to follow her fancies, enter their world like the oddest of extraterrestrials." Dan Cryer

Critical Summary

Boston native and avid rower Rosemary Mahoney, once an assistant to playwright Lillian Hellman, has led a peripatetic life, and her writing reflects the breadth of her travels and the depth of her thinking on cultural matters. Previous efforts include The Early Arrival of Dreams, the author’s experiences in China just before Tiananmen Square; The Singular Pilgrim, a spiritual travelogue; and Whoredom in Kimmage, a treatise on Irish gender roles. In On the Nile, the author writes beautifully of the connections between culture and history—though critics note how reluctantly she shares details of her own life outside her travels. Still, Mahoney’s voice is direct and honest, her Nile as evocative as Paul Bowles’s desert, her wit a counterbalance to the unease engendered by such a profound cultural divide.