Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975)

Edition: Cassell, 1976
Review number: 575

The first Amelia Peabody novel is perhaps the sharpest that Elizabeth Peters has written; it is astringently funny rather than romantic. The heroine is an opinionated feminist in mid-Victorian society, with no time for the stupid conventions of the world around her (and rich enough to avoid some of the more serious consequences which could arise from this attitude).

Travelling in Italy, she befriends a young woman on the point of suicide: she had run away from her family with the man she loved only to discover that he was really only after her for her money. Amelia and Evelyn travel to Egypt, with Evelyn in the guise of paid companion. In Egypt, they become involved in the amazing archaeological discoveries taking place at the time (accompanied by rampant treasure hunting, theft, and vandalism).

Elizabeth Peters was an archaeologist before taking up writing, and it is her enthusiasm for this which makes this novel one of her best, catching the reader up, rendering them less apt to notice the absurdities of the plot. Like all her novels, Crocodile on the Sandbank is unashamedly light reading, though written with an intelligence and humour which is unable to take the clich├ęs of romantic fiction seriously. This is always true of the best of one of the more absurd genres of modern fiction, whether the writer is Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers or Elizabeth Peters.

The rather strange title is taken from a piece of ancient Egyptian poetry, quoted in the novel, in which a lover vows to cross a river in which there is a crocodile waiting on a sandbank to be with his beloved.

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