Little Egypt, by Lesley Glaister, tells the story of nonagenarian twins, Isis and Osiris, who are living in their ancestral and now derelict home hemmed in by a railway line, a dual carriageway and a modern superstore. They haven’t seen nor spoken to each other in ten years. Isis takes her trolley across the bridge that connects their land with the store to collect supplies, then places food in a bucket for her brother to pull upstairs where he resides while she lives below. When the food is not collected she becomes concerned but fears to climb the rotting stairway, both for her own safety and for what she may find.
Isis likes the superstore for its warmth, facilities and her contact with the people she has come to know there. Having it close by makes shopping so much easier, an important consideration now she is old. The meadow on which it was built once belonged to her family. She sold it to developers ten years ago in order to stay solvent, causing the rift with her brother. Her grandfather started this family trend when he sold land to the railway company in the previous century. Her uncle sold another portion for the road between the wars.
Some of the food Isis brings home comes from dumpsters behind the store, fished out by her young friend, a self declared anarchist named Spike. When Spike mentions that developers will allow nothing to stand in the way of profit it plants a seed of hope in Isis that she may finally be able to leave the prison her home became when she was a teenager. The need to guard a dark secret has kept her and her brother trapped but now she ponders the possibility of escape.
The reader is taken back to when the twins had just turned thirteen. Their parents, obsessed with Ancient Egypt, had left the children in the care of a servant in order to fulfil their dream of discovering the tomb of Herihor. They sold almost everything of value to pay for their quest and set out full of enthusiasm, never to return.
With no money to pay for a tutor and an aversion to allowing their children to be educated with those they considered social inferiors, Isis must fill the long days amusing herself. Osiris spends his days reading of Egypt and teaching himself to write in hierolglyphs. He is fascinated by the Ancient Egyptian’s rituals for the dead.
Jumping between time periods the reason for the twins’ incarceration is gradually revealed. It is a story of loneliness, fortitude and the consequences of injudicious choices made by abandoned children which will haunt their lives. The unloved Isis remained loyal to her atypical brother. She did not believe that, should they admit to what they had done, he could survive the rancour of the wider world.
Beautifully written and with fully rounded characters there is much humour alongside the poignancy of the unfolding tale. I loved the idea that this old lady, born to privilege, should derive pleasure from all she is able to see of modern life, this superstore, and dream of selling up and moving on. With so much emphasis these days on preservation it is refreshing to consider change as good. The old days and ways recounted here offer little to remember of past times which should ever be considered fondly.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.