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The Mistress of Abha: A Novel Paperback – August 31, 2010

3.2 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
"Julian Fellowes's Belgravia" by Julian Fellowes
From the creator and writer of Downton Abbey comes a grand historical novel, with hugely exciting twists and dramatic chapter endings. Learn more | See author page
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The late Newton's wan second novel (after The Two Pound Tram) combines adventure and the rise of Abdulaziz ibn Saud in prose as dry as sand. After accompanying Lawrence of Arabia in a campaign against the Turks, Robert Willoughby returns to 1918 England for a few days with his adolescent son, Ivor, before taking off and never being heard from again. Ten years later, Ivor embarks on a quest to Arabia to find out what happened to his father, and, soon after arriving in Abha, Ivor hears tales about a legendary ex-slave turned female warrior named Na'ema who may have a connection to his father. Ivor then travels to the seaport of Hali, and from there to the desert oasis of Khurma, where he spends several days in the company of Ferdhan bin Murzak, a prosperous slave trader who sends him on yet another quest toward discovering what happened to Robert. Unfortunately, the mystery's resolution is simultaneously tepid, melodramatic, and unsurprising. The glacially paced adventure is done in by colonial stereotypes, a narrator who stumbles forward without much volition or reflection, and overly stodgy language.
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From Booklist

A man’s quest for the father he scarcely knows drives him to foreign lands in this historically based novel. Ivor Willoughby is just seven years old when his British army captain father leaves for the Middle East, returning home only once after eight years. Ten years later, in 1930, Ivor gets a job with the Royal Navy and heads to Arabia, the land that enchanted his father. After a dangerous sojourn to Yemen, Ivor is persuaded to adopt the Arabian way of patience, and—with information from a Turkish steamboat captain and an Arabian slave trader—he finds Etza, a former slave and seer. She provides both stories and letters from his father, revered among Arabs as Ullobi, and directs him to Na’ema, who became the legendary warrior sheikh. Accounts of tribal rivalries and power shifts are so dense, particularly early on, that the narrative becomes submerged, only to blossom near the close. Newton, who died earlier this year, is likely to be remembered more for his debut novel, The Two Pound Tram (2003), than for this more ponderous work. --Michele Leber

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608193217
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608193219
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,632,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Alan A. Elsner VINE VOICE on December 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
I'm giving this novel a generous three stars -- it's really a two and a half. It tells the story of a British soldier who goes to fight with Lawrence of Arabia in the First World War and then stays on to fight in the various wars in the Arabian Peninsula which ended up with the Saudis taking over. A few years later, his son goes to discover what became of his disappeared father.

The plot unfolds in a series of stories from various people along the way. We meet noble sheiks and beautiful, dusky harem slaves -- no cliche is omitted. We are deep in the territory of "orientalism" here. One former slave becomes a kind of earth mother to the narrator and tells her story over several months. Then we meet the disappeared officer himself in a series of hidden letters that suddenly come to light.

But the real problem with this book is that none of the characters has an authentic narrative voice. They all do things -- but the characters are paper thin. They all sound the same and feel the same. Consequently, the reader is not invested in them as real, flesh-and-blood characters.

The author has no doubt done a prestigious amount of research about the various tribes of Arabia and the wars that led to the country's unification under the stultifying rule of the al Saud family. He evidently came to novel-writing late in life but his talent as a storyteller did not really match his depth of knowledge of the setting.
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Format: Paperback
Love/Hate?: Meh.
Do I like the cover?: No. I mean, it is very pretty, but the novel takes place in Saudi Arabia. There is no call for a pyramid.

Review: I didn't finish this book. I read the first 100 pages or so (120, to be exact) and the last 100 pages, and I don't think I missed anything in between.

The narration has a very odd sense to it and I can't tell if it's simply Newton's style of writing or if it's an attempt at giving the narrator, Ivor Willoughby, some personality. The story is first person but Willoughby constantly comments on his own story. If he says something odd to another character, he observes it; if he does something strange, he points it out. It's slightly clunky but grows familiar as one reads on, and I found it vaguely endearing -- until it grew tiresome.

I think the intent is for this to be a kind of epic saga -- son searching for his father - but I found it awkward and clunky and slow. There's a lot of politics and a lot of skirmishes but the narration and storyline just bored me to no end. And, ultimately, the story at it's root was just so unappealing to me. I'm not a huge fan of infidelity especially when it's part of the hero's grand romance; that, coupled with the very disturbing exoticization of the slaves, concubines, and other women in this book, left me feeling pretty gross. I'm all for a good cross-cultural romance, but when a married English officer takes on a second wife because he's all Arab 'at heart' and hates his life back in England, I find that selfish, not romantic. The narrator is very pro-Empire and colonialisation, which is accurate for the setting of the story (pre WWII, post-Lawrence of Arabia), but as a result, it's a mixture of white man's burden and the noble savage motif. It also feels a bit like cheap shorthand to create an epic quality to this story. In the end, the awkward style kept me from being fully pulled in and what I did absorb turned me off.
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Format: Paperback
The Mistress of Abha is the story of Ivor Willoughby's search in Arabia for his father, Robert Willoughby, a British soldier, who had been sent to the region with his unit, and other than a brief visit home to England when Ivor was 17, had been there ever since. At 26, Ivor sets out on a journey to find out what happened to his father. Good or bad, dead or alive, he wants to know the truth.

Although his first attempts at getting a lead on his father's whereabouts come up empty, he eventually connects with the captain of a river boat who knew him and relates their adventures to Ivor and sends him to a second contact, a slave dealer, who might have some information. In this way, the story progresses; that is, an interview with one character (who relates a portion of his father's story) leads Ivor to the next character who adds another piece to the puzzle.

I liked the format of the story. Ivor narrates throughout, telling his own story, but also leading into and out of the stories told to him by other characters. I've read in many reviews that the story moves too slowly, but that is the point. On page 52, Ivor decides that his rushing about has been ineffective because his philosophy is so at odds with the Arabian world, and resolves to adapt to their ways as far as his quest. That is, he will choose no more than a general direction, and be patient, allowing his travels to be shaped by events.

I enjoyed reading historical fiction about this area of the world so much in the news today and characterized so very differently. Although most characters are fictional, some real life events and people are referred to.
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Format: Paperback
The Mistress of Abha is written by William Newton, who died earlier this year. Newton spent his professional career as a doctor and started writing novels in his retirement. The Mistress of Abha is his second published novel.

This novel is set in 1930's Arabia. Ivor Willoughby has decided to search for his long lost father. He knows that his father left his mother shortly after his birth to serve with the British in Arabia. He returned for one brief visit when Ivor was a teenager and then disappeared again. Ivor is now an adult and ready to solve the mystery of his father.

The book begins slowly as it builds momentum for Ivor's adventure in Arabia but it does hold the promise of eventual thrills. I read an article by a reader who explained that she always gave a boring book fifty pages before deciding to put it down, and it seemed that in this case right at page fifty the book suddenly got interesting and exciting.

While in Arabia, Ivor meets with great danger, hears stories of tribal battles, the slave trade, love and intrigue amidst the harems, and eventually uncovers the mystery surrounding the tales of his father--Ullobi. Arabia is definitely not a dull place. Newton writes historical detail and plot well. However, what the book lacks is passion. Overall, I enjoyed The Mistress of Abha and stayed up late to finish it last night.
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