Into Egypt by Rosalind Brackenbury

Review by Rob Spence

This novel, first published nearly half a century ago, deals with matters which still, sadly, resonate today. Our protagonist is an idealistic young English woman, Jo Catterall, who travels in 1962 to join a kibbutz in the fledgling state of Israel. She finds herself on the border with Egypt, in sight of UN peace-keeping troops as she toils in the fields with her companions, including Gilbert, an Algerian Jew who she meets onboard the ship that takes her to Haifa, and Rowan, a carefree Australian woman working her way around the world. Later, she encounters a controversial political figure whose insights change the way she thinks about the Middle East and its conflicts.

These are the bare bones of the narrative, but what distinguishes this novel from a conventional Bildungsroman is the intensity of Brackenbury’s observation, and the lyrical, poetic style of her descriptions of landscape and feelings. I was reminded, quite often, of Virginia Woolf, especially in the way that Jo’s consciousness is depicted. Tiny details, half-understood childhood memories, speculative musings on her future life combine to  present a portrait of a mind that is always engaged, always seeking some concrete meaning in the nature of things. Here, for example, is one of Jo’s first-person passages, where she is reluctantly taking a guided tour around Jerusalem in an uncomfortably packed car:

…where I sit I feel the force of the wind upon my face, drying skin, blowing hair, making all else barely audible; I love it, this narcotic wind, blurring the edges, removing the proximity of that fat thigh against mine. And the indigestible past presents itself, in fragments, in layers, perversely jumbled. excavations, roads, towers, hills, walls holed like Emmenthal cheese, wire, stones, the exhibits.

Rosalind Brackenbury varies the point of view, so that the overall narrative is pieced together from different perspectives, to the point where sometimes the same incident is covered twice from opposing standpoints. At times, the story is related by an omniscient narrator, at others by the consciousness of the individual characters. The timeline is also tricky: much of the action takes place in 1962 during Jo’s first visit to Israel, but there are also sections which take place during her childhood, and also in London five and ten years later, before a second trip. Despite this, Jo Catterall remains the central focus, and her struggle to achieve independence and maturity is the leitmotif of the plot.

This is, however, not just about one woman’s path to self-knowledge. The book raises all kinds of issues, from the geopolitical to the deeply personal. In some respects, it is a meditation on the nature of freedom and how it might be realised. Brackenbury’s  prose, richly embedded with the sights, sounds and smells of  pioneer Israel or swinging London, is a delight, and this book is very much worthy of its reissue. Michael Walmer has now republished three of Brackenbury’s early novels (the other two are reviewed here and here), in uniform editions with introductions. This volume has a prefatory note by the author, and an introduction by Ruth Fainlight, which I would advise reading afterwards, as it contains many plot points. This novel lingers in the mind after you have read it, and I am sure I will return to it. A considerable achievement, unduly neglected, and now available for a new generation. Recommend it to your young friends!

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk  You can also find him on Twitter @spencro.

Rosalind Brackenbury, Into Egypt (Michael Walmer, 2021). 978-0648920496, 232pp., paperback.

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