I first encountered Mary Doria Russell's fiction in her debut novel The Sparrow, which was followed by a direct sequel, Children of God, both of which are perhaps best characterized as literary science fiction. I don't normally read historical fiction, but on the strength of Russell's superb characterization and scene-setting, I will read any fiction she writes no matter what the genre.
Dreamers of the Day is told from the point of view of Agnes Shanklin, a never-married Ohio schoolteacher who has lost all of her family in the great influenza epidemic that followed World War I. Her beloved younger sister and her brother-in-law had spent several years near Beirut as missionaries, and Agnes, inspired by her sister's life, decides to use her inheritance to visit Egypt and Palestine. Once in Cairo, she immediately becomes an intimate witness to the doings of the Cairo Peace Conference, where T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and other luminaries are gathered to determine the fate of the troubled Middle East.
As always, Russell's characterization is brilliant. I love Agnes's personality, and her honesty with herself and the audience to whom she's narrating. Her relationships -- with Lawrence, with a German Jew and intelligence officer named Karl Weilbacher, and even with her dog, Rosie -- are utterly charming. I also enjoyed the larger-than-life personalities of Churchill and Lawrence himself.
As expected, the setting is well drawn. There are so many details of sights, sounds, and smells than it's easy to imagine the Cairo that Agnes experienced. I admit that the historical elements were a bit dry for me, and that the subtle political machinations were sometimes over my head, but that's a failing in my knowledge of history rather than a failing on the part of the author.
*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
My only real quibble is with the conceit of having Agnes narrate these past events from her afterlife-in-limbo along a ghostly Nile River. It's an awkward device, and the supernatural element is at odds with the realism that Russell's detailed settings always evoke. Further, it appears that Russell did this mainly because she wanted to comment upon, without naming it outright, September 11 and its aftermath, and how that tragedy can perhaps be traced back to the Peace Conference in the 1920s. I would have much preferred an elderly but still living Agnes to look back on her life and the historical events she witnessed, but obviously a character that age could not have lived to see September 11, so we are stuck with this awkward pseudo-afterlife that does not reveal anything of Russell's idea (if she has one) about the reality of God or Heaven.
Going one step further, it even seems to me that Russell wrote the entire book to be able to write one particular line almost at the end, about men selling fear, an obvious comment on this country's current administration. I agree with her sentiments, and I understand that she would have been leaving out something important to her by not commenting on current events, but the awkward device just doesn't work for me.
Nonetheless, I would still give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Russell's writing is just that good, plain and simple -- and, to be fair, other readers may not find this narrative device as problematic as I did. There were many wonderful lines that I marked as I read so I could peruse them again later. I'll continue to follow Russell's fiction anywhere she chooses to take it.