This book is set mainly around the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, in the early 1920s. It is narrated by Lucy Fox-Payne, eleven years old when the story opens. She has come to Egypt in the winter of 1922, under the care of Miss Myrtle Mackenzie, still suffering the combined effects of a bout of typhoid fever and the loss of her mother to the same illness. Her father, a Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge, never had much time for his daughter and is quite happy to ship her off with Miss Mackenzie.
Staying at the famed Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, Lucy and Miss Mack meet the Winlocks, a family of Americans. Lucy makes friends with Frances Winlock, whose father Herbert is the director of excavations for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Miss Mack meanwhile bonds with Helen Winlock, Frances's mother. Through this family, she and Lucy meet other archaeologists, including Howard Carter. They also meet Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who holds the permit that allows Carter to dig in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. When the archaeologists move on to Luxor, Lucy and Miss Mack go with them.
The story moves back and forth in time. In the present-day, the elderly Lucy is visited by Dr. Ben Fong, an American working in London on a documentary about King Tutankhamun and the discovery of the tomb. She distrusts him from the first, but his visits stir up memories, and she begins to sort through old letters and photographs, as well as her memories. The story also moves back and forth between Egypt and England, as Lucy returns home to Cambridge. Later she visits the Carnarvons at Highclere Castle, while staying with two young friends she met in Egypt, Rose and Peter. Lucy and Miss Mack manage to return to Luxor for the 1922-1923 digging season, which is of course when Howard Carter finally makes his great discovery.
I spent much of the weekend completely caught up in this book, which has layer upon layer of plot elements. I was fascinated by the sections set in Egypt. I knew the basic outline of the history of the tomb, and I've seen three different exhibits of artifacts from it (someday I hope to see them in Egypt). Reading this, I felt like I was right in the middle of the events, though naturally Lucy and Miss Mack are mainly observers. I did stop to look up photos of the real-life characters and some of the artifacts. (Ms. Beauman includes a list of characters at the beginning, with the fictional ones noted, and a section at the end with details about the lives of the real people in later years.)
The sections set in England, both in the past and the present, were interesting in different ways. I liked the older Lucy and enjoyed learning how her life had unfolded. When she returns to Cambridge the first time, she discovers that her father has installed a governess for her. Nicola Dunshire, a graduate of Girton, is a self-proclaimed bluestocking who pushes her pupil hard, and not just in her studies. She and Lucy have the most complicated relationship, and I'm still puzzling over the nuances of it. Her father lives in his rooms at college, returning only on Sundays, and Lucy spends most of her time with Miss Dunshire. (I loathed him from the start, and he did nothing to change my mind - quite the opposite.)
I had only one quibble with this book. Lucy and Frances Winlock show a great talent for eavesdropping. They regularly fade into the background, behind sofas and so on, where they overhear all kinds of fascinating information. But various adults are also prone to confide in Lucy as soon as she sits down near them. I found it hard to believe that Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in particular would talk so freely to a young girl that they hardly know. I understand it's a plot device to convey information that Lucy otherwise wouldn't have access to, but it felt clumsy.
This book was a birthday gift, from the friend who first introduced me to Elizabeth Peters's books. I had to keep reminding myself that Amelia and Emerson were not going to make an appearance in this one. (My sister reminded me that Emerson was at this point banned from excavating in the Valley of the Kings after picking fights with various officials.) There is a bibliography of books about Egypt and archaeology, some by the real-life people of this book, and I may be looking for some of those. I see Ms. Beauman has also written several other books. Any recommendations of which to read next? (Probably not the Rebecca sequel.)