by Michelle Moran
Edition reviewed: uncorrected proof, Crown, 2007, ISBN 978-0-307-38146-0
Set in Egypt towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, in 1351-1335 BC, Nefertiti tells the story of two sisters at the heart of Egypt's royal family. All the main characters in the novel are based on historical personages.
Nefertiti is the elder sister, beautiful, ambitious and egotistical, who desires wealth and power. Mutnodjmet, the younger sister, is sensible, thoughtful, affectionate, pretty rather than beautiful, and hopes for love and a happy family life. Nefertiti's marriage to the Pharaoh Akhenaten as his Chief Wife provides her with the opportunity to gain the power she craves, and plunges Mutnodjmet into a world of ruthless political intrigue. Nefertiti and the sisters' father, Grand Vizier Ay, thrive on politics and plotting, but Mutnodjmet longs for a quiet family life with her love, the military officer Nakhtmin. Can Mutnodjmet emerge from her sister's shadow and make the life that she wants for herself?
If this sounds reminiscent of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, that's because I found the similarities striking. The scheming court, the slippery politicians in family factions who use their daughters to gain power, the erratic and all-powerful ruler, and most of all the two sisters and their contrasting quests for power or love. Readers who enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl will probably find much to like in Nefertiti.
Nefertiti is rich in period detail. Clothing, fabrics, perfume, make-up, jewellery, furniture, food, markets, building techniques, herbs and their medicinal uses, tombs, burial rites, gods and religion are all lovingly described. If you have ever tried to imagine how the numerous Egyptian artefacts in museums were used in real life, you'll find the descriptions fascinating.
The central characters of Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet (Mutny for short) are well drawn. I found Mutny, who narrates the novel in first person, much the more sympathetic of the two. Nefertiti's selfishness, constant demands for her own way and apparent willingness to sacrifice her sister's happiness for her own ambitions make her a compelling figure but not a very likeable one. The unstable Pharaoh Akhenaten is a spoilt child who throws temper tantrums and expects other people to pick up the pieces. His obsession is changing the religion of Egypt from its numerous traditional gods and goddesses to worship of a single god, the sun-disk or Aten. This experiment, known now as the Amarna heresy, was unpopular and near-disastrous, and was swiftly reversed after Akhenaten's death. In the novel, Nefertiti is placed as Akhenaten's wife by her family in the hope that she will control his religious obsession, but instead she panders to it as a way of bolstering her position at the expense of Akhenaten's other wife. This could have been very interesting to explore - did Nefertiti share her husband's beliefs, did she recognise the damage he was doing and consciously accept it as the price of her own power, did she try to talk him out of his more crackpot schemes? But because the novel is told in first person through Mutnodjmet's eyes, the reader never gets to see Nefertiti's thoughts. There's one line where Mutnodjmet wonders whether Nefertiti struggles with her conscience, and almost at the end of the novel Mutnodjmet is told by her father that Nefertiti had mitigated some of Akhenaten's stupider decisions and thus limited the damage, but this aspect is never shown or explored in any detail.
I would also have liked to see how Nefertiti ruled as Pharaoh in her own right. Had she matured from the vain and foolish girl at the beginning of the story? Did she make a more successful job of running the country than her late husband? (Not a very high hurdle!). Yet the years of Nefertiti's rule are skipped over in a few pages at the end of the novel, which seems a missed opportunity. It would have been fascinating to show a much-vaunted "strong woman" actually wielding political power in her own right. After having spent her lifetime obtaining it, what did she do with it?
The novel provides an interesting solution to some puzzles in Egyptian history. I gather that there is considerable confusion about the Amarna heresy and its aftermath, not least because subsequent rulers tried to expunge the 'heretic Pharaoh' from the records. For example, the identity of the Pharaoh Smenkhare who succeeded Akhenaten is unclear (see Wikipedia for some theories), and in the novel Smenkhare is explained as a coronation name taken by Nefertiti on her accession as Pharaoh. The author provides some useful historical notes on her website, though there was no author's note in the book itself. However, this may have been because it was a proof copy, which would also explain the absence of the map referred to on the back cover (which would have been extremely helpful).
Richly detailed recreation of a fascinating episode in Egypt's colourful history.
In Kingdom of the Ark, Egyptologist Lorraine Evans proposes an intriguing
(though to my mind not entirely convincing) theory that Nefertiti's daughter
Meritaten may be the Egyptian princess Scota who appears in a (legendary?)
medieval account of the founding of Scotland. Review here.