Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Have you ever heard what a person did for a living and wondered what it was really like? In this case, it wasn't famed archaeologist Max Mallowan who answers this question but his famous wife, Agatha Christie, the revered mystery writer, who set out to answer the question she often got at dinner parties about what she did on her husband's archaeological expeditions. Who better to write this happily enchanting and engaging memoir of several seasons in Syria excavating promising tells (man made mounds indicating the presence of past settlements), uncovering the mysteries of the past than the Grande Dame of Mystery herself?

Agatha Christie Mallowan was funny. She was observant. She was self-deprecating. And she's eminently readable. Undertaken to explain Christie Mallowan's life and experiences in the Middle East, the memoir, firmly grounded in the pre-WWII time period, was started and then put aside, only being finished at the close of the war, after the world she was chronicling was already slipping into memory. From detailing her preparations to leave England, such things as the necessity of vast quantities of pens and watches and shoes (the latter being Christie Mallowan's desire), the difficulty of finding appropriate clothing in a large enough size, and trying to jam too many books into already over stuffed luggage to the realities of life in the dusty and hot fields, the delicate dance of propitiating the ruling sheikhs, the sometimes seemingly inexplicable conflicts between local workers, the different personalities on the dig, and observing the attitudes towards women in contrast to British attitudes at the time, no detail is too small for Christie Mallowan's pen to capture. She shares crazy and unpredictable adventures as well as the every day domesticity of living in tents and in native homes. She writes of the archaeological practices of the day, some of which probably make modern archaeologists wince, and of the nerve-wracking practice of splitting finds between the country of origin and Britain. Her very real love and affection for the people and the place come through her casual, chatty narrative.

Christie Mallowan is very much a woman of her time in terms of her attitude toward to native people and some of her observations clearly come from a place where she is the vaguely paternalistic "civilized onlooker" as compared to their position of "noble savage." But her own self-deprecation helps to mitigate this for modern readers and most of her observations generally come off with an air of old-fashioned charm. She is, after all, writing about people, both European and Middle Eastern, who no longer exist as they are drawn here. Because of this vanished way of life, disappeared to both the reader and to Christie Mallowan equally, and perhaps because she herself didn't finish writing it until it was gone, there is a real feel of nostalgia for a simpler, bygone era in these pages. But the nostalgia is not the whole story; it's not even the majority of it. The majority is a fascinating look into the growing field of archaeology, the people who practiced it, and one remarkable wife who turned her pen to explaining it in a mostly lighthearted, funny, well-written book. When the reader turns the last page it is with true regret that there is not more time to be spent in the sandy, stifling heat and blinding sun of 1930s Syria in the delightful company of their witty dear friend Agatha Christie Mallowan.

1 comment:

  1. I have this book on my "small" should-be-read-next-year bookcase. I'm going to move it up so it will be sure to be read within the next 12 months. Thanks for the recommendation!


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