By Francine Howarth
Life in a Harem and the practices defined as part of life within a Sultan’s palace is unacceptable and sexist for 21st-century thinking. Thus the era in which Joanna Thomson’s novel is set, it is nonetheless a safer place than most for those sold into slavery, and a strict hierarchy exists, and woe betides anyone who breaks the rules. Strange as it may seem, women within Harems of the Ottoman Empire stretching to the Barbary Coast, had more rights and power than most European women had within marriages, so sayeth the renowned English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, who stated in one of her 18th century letters: “The Turks govern their country and their wives govern them. In no other country do women enjoy themselves as much.”
Be assured the author has researched her subject matter in depth, right down to names for individual items of clothing worn by women of the Harem, and of a south sea island maiden, though the true heritage of Sarah and the colour of her hair sets her apart from other women, just it had for another who arrived at the Harem and is thus presented to Naa’il Dhar. Throughout the beginning of the novel two stories of two women run parallel and finally merge as one, and yet neither woman meets the other. Whilst Naa’il is the central pin in their respective stories aside from the swashbuckling hero Hassan, Naa’il is a man of his time and his religion, wealthy and powerful, and yet his faith is tested, just as the hero’s faith and belief he can rescue the woman he loves is tested.
Hassan Aziz’s existence as a Barbary pirate is key to knowledge in how to achieve his aims, but the fact he is not what he seems is also reliant on betrayal of those closest to Naa’il. This is a fascinating novel of south sea island innocence, treachery, lust, and love, the kind of love that comes once in a lifetime if a man is lucky, and both Naa’il and Hassan are driven to acts that astound both in their own way because of two women. So alike is Sarah to Cora, an American captive; Naa’il’s conscience plagues him for his unjust treatment of both women who refuse to submit and embrace his religious dictate. Although I mention love and lust, this is a historical novel combined with romance, and the novel is not a steamy read in the vein of eroticism. The characters are well-rounded, their faults exposed, and the punishment of slaves and concubines, or favoured wives who deceive, can be realistically harsh. All told this is an enlightening read with hints at how one person’s religion can give cause for another to doubt their own.