REVIEW: Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
Dear Ms. Moran:
I can trace my fascination with Ancient Egypt back to my middle school days when I saw a picture in my social studies textbook of an Egyptian battery. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the amazement I experienced as I devoured information on Egyptian methods of embalming and the building of the pyramids. I’m still a little obsessed with mummification and have spent hours upon hours in the Egyptian wing of the British Museum, which houses the largest collection of artifacts outside of Egypt. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I approached your ambitious debut novel, Nefertiti, not knowing quite what to expect in a novel about a historical figure whose known history is incomplete. For the most part, I enjoyed Nefertiti, feeling it was true to the knowledge we have of her life and time, and appreciative of the broad scope of the story.
Nefertiti is narrated by the title character’s younger (half) sister, Mutnodjmet (Mutny), and picks up just before the fifteen-year-old Nefertiti is married to Egypt’s new pharaoh, Amunhotep IV. Amunhotep’s brother Tuthmosis has just died after a chariot accident, although there is some quiet suspicion that his ambitious brother may have hastened his demise in order to take his place as pharaoh. Amunhotep the Younger has big plans for himself and for Egypt, plans that include changing the entire spiritual structure of the empire from polytheism to monotheism, with the minor deity Aten (the sun disk) at its center. Marriage to the beautiful and clever Nefertiti has been arranged by Queen Tiye, Amunhotep’s mother and Nefertiti’s aunt, in the hopes of exerting some control over the young Amunhotep. What no one counts on, however, is that Nefertiti is as ambitious and insecure in her own way as Amunhotep, and that she is as eager as he to enjoy unparalleled adoration from the people of Egypt. What follows after the marriage is an intense and often harrowing struggle for power among Egypt’s viziers, military leaders, and royalty, with the young pharaoh and his wife set on changing the course of Egyptian politics and worship.
The politics of Nefertiti are complex and dynamic, but can best be expressed by returning to the ambitions of Nefertiti and her husband, who insists on being called Akhenaten to honor Aten, especially their unarticulated but clear desire to be loved as gods themselves and remembered through eternity. The military prowess of Egypt becomes imperiled by Akhenaten’s insistence that the soldiers build his new capital in the middle of the desert, diplomacy is undermined by his disinterest in anything outside the scope of his immediate power, and the wealth of Egypt is endangered by his aggressive taxation of the old Amun-worshiping priests and his new custom of throwing gold into the streets to please the people. For all intents and purposes, Nefertiti’s father, the Vizier Ay, manages the day to day work of running the empire with Queen Tiye, while Nefertiti tries to merge her father’s will with her husband’s and her own. The more powerful and reckless Akhenaten becomes, the more peril the empire faces, whether it be from the invading Hittites, the priests who refuse to abandon the old gods, the people who are always planning some form of rebellion, or plague.
Within these larger issues are the family dynamics among Nefertiti and Mutny, Ay and Nefertiti, Kiya (Akhenaten’s first wife) and her ambitious father, Vizier Panahesi, and the rest of the novel’s characters. The world does, indeed, seem to revolve around Nefertiti and Akhenaten, both in Egypt and in the novel. Nefertiti is extremely emotionally dependent on Mutny, and even after her marriage expects Mutny to remain by her side, assuaging her heated jealousy toward Kiya, supporting her relationship with the arrogant and reckless Akhenaten, and generally serving as confidante and comfort. Mutny, a talented herbalist, cannot deny her sister, even when she is frustrated and hurt by her sister’s self-centered insensitivity. And as she grows older and falls in love with a man who shares her dream of settling down on a farm and living a quiet life, the tensions around Nefertiti become even more urgent because of Nefertiti’s overwhelming jealousy over anything and anyone who threatens her primary attachments to her husband, her sister, and later, to her children. We see very clearly through Mutny’s unvarnished narration how much alike Akhenaten and Nefertiti are in their ambition and jealousy, even as Nefertiti fights to keep people she trusts close to her and Akhenaten pushes potential allies away, afraid they will usurp his power. In that sense, having Mutnodjmet narrate the novel works well, allowing us to see through the initially innocent and somewhat worshipful eyes of the younger sister the machinations of her older sister, father, aunt, and brother-in-law.
At the same time, though, having Mutny serve as narrator calls attention to the artificiality of the narrative position, the fact that an audience of strangers are reading, in need to details beyond what would be required of someone listening casually to Mutny tell this story. How, for example, should background information be incorporated into the novel? Sometimes it appears in ways that seem very natural, like those descriptions of what the women are wearing, of how Nefertiti is being dressed and hennaed. But there are other points at which I can almost feel research being incorporated into the narrative. For example, when Nefertiti gives birth, the details are clearly included for the benefit of readers:
Nefertiti’s chair had been painted with the three goddesses of childbirth. Hathor, Nekhbet, and Tawaret held out their arms across the ebony throne. . .
The women eased her onto the padded seat with its hole in the middle for the child to make its descent into the world. . .
“We’ve already given her kheper-wer.” She had inserted the mixture of kheper-wer plant, honey, and milk into my sister to induce birth. . .
Ipu and Merit carried a dish of hot water to the birthing chair, placing it between my sister’s legs so that the steam would help ease the delivery.
As I was reading, I was also doing some web searching to ferret out some more details on Nefertiti’s world, and came across a site that made me wonder if it had served as background for this scene because of some similarities in phrasing. That I could so clearly discern the research here distanced me from the story at times, even as I appreciated the way the story jibed with what I could find on the real world history the novel attempts to capture. And while this may sound a bit contradictory, I would have loved to see a bibliography at the end of the book, simply because I am so interested in the time period and all the resources provided on the book’s Web page are Web references (what can I say – I’m a research snob who believes that actual books and journal articles still matter). In other words, there was enough historical richness in the novel to make me want to pursue the research, but I also wish it had been integrated a bit more smoothly and seamlessly into the novel.
As for Mutny’s reliability as a narrator, as I was reading the early chapters I was reminded of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, and the way her innocence offers the reader an apparently objective view of things beyond her understanding. That innocence is itself a narrative construction of course; we readers ultimately see what is presented to us by the author. But it can be a useful conceit, as I think it is here to some degree, especially when Mutny is learning about the ways of the Egyptian throne, just as we are, and we can benefit from the information she relates, as well as from her wonder, surprise, and disappointment. Where it falters for me is in the way Nefertiti’s intense jealousy of Mutny’s time and attention creates a vision of her as selfish, self-centered, and petty (downright ruthless on several occasions). That image is not as nuanced as I wanted it to be, especially when we understand later on in the novel how much Nefertiti has exerted her own will against the reckless selfishness of her husband. I do admire the way Nefertiti is portrayed as a woman with unparalleled power – eventually she is crowned pharaoh and co-regent in her own right, on par in power with her husband – and as a powerful woman who was not above certain baser feelings and impulses.
But while I came to understand how clever and independent Nefertiti was, how insistent she was on forging the best path for Egypt, I never could quite get past some of the more horrible things she did – or allowed others to do – to Mutny, something I might not have felt so much had I not grown attached to Mutny as a narrator and invested in her happiness. Ironically, I felt that the person who loved and was loyal to Nefertiti did not always help me understand and love her, too; in fact, sometimes Mutny’s love alienated me from Nefertiti in ways that made it difficult for me to appreciate her greatness as queen and pharaoh.
I also felt, after everything was said and done, that Nefertiti’s power was still subject to the will of the influential men in her life (namely her husband and father). At one point the royal artist tells Mutny that the pharaoh is not jealous of the people’s love of Nefertiti because “‘she guides their love to him, and they love him because she does.'” In one sense this is a reflection of Nefertiti’s genius, of her ability to turn an unstable situation to her advantage and avert disaster. But in another sense it is a reflection of the reality of how often Nefertiti’s will is exerted in service of the will of either her father or her husband. The lesson of Nefertiti’s life seems to be that “[p]ower is cruel,” and that lesson is played out both in what Nefertiti has to – or feels she has to – do, and in what ultimately happens to her. This is not exactly a critique of the novel as much as it is a question about the choice to have Mutny narrate the story. There were a number of times when I felt that other voices would provide certain insights into Nefertiti that would allow me to see her more comprehensively and appreciate the very difficult balancing act she was attempting, as well as the incredibly complex factors of her personality and her position. While Mutny certainly includes the comments and perspectives of others, I still felt a distinct limitation in the perspective of the novel’s portrait of its title character and a limiting of the nuances that were consistently hinted at or implied.
One decided strength of Mutny’s narration, however, is that we get to see her own story intertwined with Nefertiti’s, and the very different path of destiny she travels takes on an extra poignancy next to her sister’s fate. That Mutny remains loyal to the old gods provides another layer to the story, as well, along with her own relationships. While definitely not a traditional Romance, Nefertiti maintains a strong romantic thread through Mutny, whose life, despite all of her family’s ambition and political maneuverings, is possessed of a joy and sense of fulfillment her sister will never know or understand. As much as Mutny loves her sister, she does not envy her, and neither do we. Nefertiti may understand the nature of power, but Mutny understands the nature of love. That such a strong loyalty bonds them through so many difficulties provides a strong center to the novel, even thought it didn’t always feel balanced.
When I first finished Nefertiti, I gave it a preliminary grade of B-, based on the strengths of the somewhat epic scope and the weaknesses I felt were inherent in the narrative style and perspective. But the novel has stayed with me, and I have been ruminating over certain aspects of the story and the characters. Nefertiti’s last impulsive act, for example, is powerfully rendered and speaks to the mixed nature of her influence on Egypt. The scene in which Kiya gives birth to Tutankhamen offers a moment of humanity for a character that teetered on the edge of caricature in the novel. And Queen Tiye, who, along with Ay, put the events of the novel in motion, turns out to be a pleasant surprise and a welcome emissary between the political and personal realms of the novel. So upon reflection, I have to give the book a solid B, because its strengths, in the end, resonate more powerfully than its weaknesses. And I look forward to the upcoming release of Nefertiti‘s sequel, The Heretic Queen.