"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: The Fourth Queen

"The Fourth Queen" is a fascinating study of what life may have been like in the harem of the Emperor of Morocco in the 18th century. The author based the character of Helen Gloag on a real Scottish girl of the same name who is supposed to have become the wife of the Emperor after being taken into captivity by pirates.

Debbie Taylor's Helen is actually a composite figure of several women, about whom little is actually known. Due to this lack of knowledge about Helen's personality, character, and ultimate fate, Ms Taylor was able to create Helen as one would a totally fictional character. Helen is a flawed heroine in many ways (uneducated, unsophisticated, and basically self-centered). She is an interesting contrast to the character of Batoom, who is one of the four wives of the emperor. Batoom is older, as independent as one can be in the confines of the harem, and a woman of great compassion. The other main character is "Microphilus," a male dwarf based upon a real man named Jeffrey Hudson, who lived a century earlier than the setting of this novel, but who also for a time lived as a captive in a North African harem. Microphilus fell almost instantly in love with Helen, even though he was having a relationship with Batoom.

The most fascinating parts of this book include the rise of Helen from a bewildered, and pregnant, captive to one of the four wives of the emperor, and the wonderful depiction of harem life. The harem is shown in all of its decadence -- these women have nothing to do but eat, groom themselves, eat, spend money on useless trinkets, plot against each other, practice sex with each other, and eat some more. There are a couple of scenes of explicit sex, a violent execution of a runaway, and a mystery involving a plot against one of the four queens. While much of the novel is told in third person, the parts of the book seen from Microphilus' point of view are taken from his hidden journal (the author states that the journal entries are based upon the writings of Jeffrey Hudson). Although the character of Helen was a bit of a problem for me, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to those who like something a little out of the ordinary.

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