It often surprises my interview guests to learn that when I agree to take on a book, I read it cover to cover. There’s a reason I do that (in addition to my general love of reading, especially when it comes to historical fiction): novels have their own kind of emotional truth, so the true meaning of a book doesn’t always correspond to its subject.
That’s especially true of a deeply moving, profoundly felt novel like Gill Paul’s The Collector’s Daughter, the subject of my latest New Books Network interview. Yes, the book explores the events surrounding and following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922, and that is an interesting topic in and of itself—especially to lifetime fans of Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptology novels like me.
But the heart of The Collector’s Daughter is something quite different. It asks the question, in the author’s own words, “Can you still love someone when they no longer remember your shared past and may have an altered personality because of changes that have occurred in their brain?” The answer for Evelyn Herbert and her husband is a resounding yes, but the question affects us all—in our relationships with parents, spouses, or our own selves. And that makes this novel worth every minute you spend on it.
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings almost a century ago revolutionized the study of ancient Egypt and its pharaohs. The splendors that surrounded the burial of this relatively minor ruler, interred in a hastily arranged tomb, sparked a furor of speculation, scholarship, and outright chicanery and draw crowds even today. For a long time, though, no one knew that the first modern person to enter the tomb was not Howard Carter, the famed archaeologist who located it, but Lady Evelyn (Eve) Herbert, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who funded Carter’s expedition.
In The Collector’s Daughter (William Morrow, 2021), Gill Paul approaches the story of Carter’s discovery from the perspective of its long-term effects on those involved in the find. We meet Eve first in 1972, fifty years after these life-changing events, when she has just awoken in a hospital after suffering the latest in a series of strokes that sap her physical and mental strength. She barely recognizes the man sitting next to her, although she soon concludes (correctly) that he is her husband, Brograve.
As Eve fights her way back to health, Brograve attempts to jog her memory with photographs and tales, each of which sets off a trip into the past where we see what actually occurred and contrast it with Eve’s foggy recollections. Meanwhile, Brograve is doing his best to shield his wife from the demands of an Egyptian archaeologist determined to track down missing artifacts from the tomb—on behalf of her government, her university, or herself? We’re not quite sure of the archaeologist’s motives, only that she has secrets of her own.
The tale of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the accidents that followed its discovery, and how Eve came to be the first person to enter its suffocating atmosphere three thousand years after the ancient Egyptian priests sealed the sarcophagus is beautifully told. But what really sets The Collector’s Daughter apart is its haunting exploration of memory loss and its impact on Eve and Brograve’s long and loving marriage. This is definitely a book that you don’t want to miss.
Image of Horus pectoral from Tutankhamun’s tomb public domain via Wikimedia Commons.