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16th February
written by Steph

Ever since falling ill last week, I’ve fallen woefully behind in my book reviews.  Not that I’ve been reading a ton, because I haven’t (that’s how sick I was… a week spent pretty much NOT reading!), but still, I’ve read some and then haven’t had the energy to write about any of it.  It probably doesn’t help that I’ve spent time on some fairly mediocre reads, The Egyptologist, being one such book. This is a novel told through letters and diary entries, which is actually a pretty cool conceit and helps the story flow a lot better than it might otherwise have done.  We open with a letter from one Ralph Trilipush addressed to his fiancée, essentially telling her that if she’s reading this letter then he must be dead.  He left a few months prior to the date of this letter on an archeology expedition in Egypt with the aim of uncovering the tomb of an ancient king whose very existence is hotly disputed.  In the letter, Trilipush mentions that he is sending along his private journals and dig notes so that his fiancée can publish his findings.  The rest of The Egyptologist is made up of these bits of writing allowing the reader to slowly reconstruct what happened to Trilipush.  In addition, we are also privy to the correspondence of an aging Australian private eye, who was hired many years ago to find the illegitimate offspring of a wealthy English shipping magnate; these letters are addressed to the great nephew of Trilipush’s fiancée, and as readers we slowly begin to piece together a larger mystery that is in play and that heretofore has never properly been resolved. On paper, The Egyptologist looks so promising!  It’s got unreliable narrators (the only real way to figure out what’s going out is to take everything you read with a grain of salt… which is a weird way to read a novel, but it’s only by reading between the lines that the truth is made clear), sexual intrigue, mummies, misunderstandings, foreign lands, and quite a spate of adventure. Most readers would probably hope for little else in a novel!  I was looking for a rollicking good read, and in some ways I felt the book delivered, but in other ways, I was left feeling underwhelmed.  I liked the way Phillips used multiple narrative threads to tell a multi-faceted story to his readers, and I liked that I never knew how much I could trust what I was reading, but I found the central mystery tying the Trilipush story to the Aussie detective story rather feeble and obvious.  I knew pretty much within 40 pages or so how that story was going to resolve itself one way or another and I wasn’t proven wrong.  Getting to that reveal was still fun, but the ending of the novel felt REALLY drawn out and overly long, and so that did dissipate some of my enjoyment.  I think a good 50 pages or so could have been chopped from this novel and it would have been all the better for it, which is a real shame because who likes to race through the last part of a book with “let’s just end this sucker, shall we?” at the back of their mind?  I know I don’t! That said, there were a few unexpected twists along the way, some stories that I didn’t fully tie up on my own, and those certainly kept me reading on.  I really liked the various ways in which Phillips tackles the question of immortality – the different means by which people can live on, whether it be through mummification or other more intellectual and/or subtler means.  I thought Phillips showed real skill in terms of how he manages to make this idea the core of all the storylines coiling about in the novel, and I liked the ways in which certain narrative threads would echo other ones, so that the reader’s experience is ultimately greater than the sum of any of the individual parts.  It’s definitely one of those books where there’s nothing explosive about any individual storyline, but taken together, you’ve got something quite impressive and fun.  It’s an adventure story with intellectual heft, I just wish Phillips could have stretched his ingenuity a little bit farther so that all of the storylines were equally strong (and intriguing)! Although I had fun reading The Egyptologist, I ultimately feel that this is a book I probably appreciated more from a technical standpoint than I did as a wild thrill ride of a book.  There weren’t enough surprises for me, and I was really looking for a page-turner that I just couldn’t put down.  I appreciated the careful execution of the book, but felt let down by one of the central mysteries, which really let a lot of wind out of my sails.  It’s a fun book for those who’d like to do a little armchair travel to Egypt, or for those looking for a light adventure story with some provocative ideas, but if you’re like books that always keep you guessing, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere. Rating: 3 out of 5


  1. 02/16/2010

    It does sound interesting, but too bad about the underwhelming part. It seems like I’ve been reading lots of “let’s just end this sucker, shall we?” books lately…Catcher in the Rye, The Swan Thieves, House of Leaves. Your comment is the best way to describe (and categorize) them that I’ve come across!

  2. 02/16/2010

    I have heard of this book, but before reading your review, never really knew much about it. Although it does appeal to me in some ways, I think it might bore me if it is so easy to figure out the main thrust of the mystery early on. And while I do like to arm-chair travel in some cases, I am not sure that this book would really be for me. I do like the fact that it is told in epistolary form, so maybe…

  3. 02/17/2010

    It does sound very promising – what a pity it didn’t fully deliver! I’m still intrigued, though. Egypt, letters and diaries (a narrative technique I love)…it sounds like it could be a fun if not life-changing read for me.

  4. 02/17/2010

    @ softdrink: I hate when I’m in an “underwhelming read” slump! Hope yours ends soon!
    @ zibilee: Alas the main mystery is patently obvious, which was a real letdown. As I said, there’s a lot of other stuff to enjoy, but I have to think there are better books for armchair traveling out there!
    @ Nymeth: I am not one of those people who love epistolary/diary novels, but it really worked here and was a lot of fun! It’s by no means a lifechanging novel, but it is pretty amusing, so if you find a copy, I’d give it a try!

  5. 02/17/2010

    Hmmm … the technical aspects of this book sound really interesting, and I might be tempted to try it anyway, even if you didn’t love it. Actually, I have Prague to read, first, though. But I love novels told through letters and diaries, so I may need to get to this one eventually.

  6. taryn

    Dude!! Did i not warn you about this book?? It’s the one that i picked to read while i was mootching around your place during in july. I, too, was intrigued by the premise but ultimately quite underwhelmed. It was like: “Oooh! … meh” And yes, you could toooootally see the ending coming like miles away, and i wonder why the author was the only one who couldn’t see it!

  7. 02/18/2010

    @ Dorothy: Even though I didn’t love this one, I still had fun with it and don’t really regret having read it. Sometimes you want a book that entertains, and I think this was successful in that regard! And if you like diaries and epistolary novels, well, then this should jump onto your TBR pile just for that reason alone!
    @ taryn: Yes, you told me it was predictable, but I still figured I needed to give it a shot of my own! And now I can take it back to McKay’s because I certainly won’t read it again, but it would have been silly to take it back unread/unattempted! Don’t know why the author couldn’t have cobbled together a better mystery, but I guess they can’t all be Tana French! 😉

  8. 02/21/2010

    Had much the same reaction as you. Love his writing, and his newest book, The Song Is You, was one of my favorites from last year, but I just could not get excited over this one. The protagonist’s self-deceptions provided some amusement, but ultimately, I just did not care about what was happening here, and just had to push through to finish. Disengaged. That’s what I was.

  9. 02/22/2010

    @ Frances: I remember how much you loved The Song Is You, and that’s a book I’m definitely interested in trying now. I really did like Phillips’s writing, but there were weaknesses with the story here that I couldn’t overlook!

  10. 02/23/2010

    I picked up this book because I was always fascinated by pyramids and mummies, but I wasn’t thrilled by it at all. It was so predictable that I lost interest.

  11. 02/24/2010

    @ Matt: Yes, the fact that this one was so predictable really was a letdown. Phillips seems really intelligent in terms of his writing, so I’m a bit sad he wasn’t able to come up with something a bit more inspiring…

  12. Candace Seaton

    You must all have been reading while asleep. This book is a most brilliant study of a tragic slide into insanity as has ever been written, and the plot twists are forehead smacking surprises…wake up!

  13. 04/25/2011

    @ Candace: Having run this site for over two years now, I know that books that don’t work for me can and often do work for other people. Unfortunately, while this book had a lot of fun bits, I personally didn’t find it very gripping and the plot twists didn’t do much for me. Of course, this has no bearing whatsoever on how others will respond to the book, it was just meant to document my own experiences.

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