A review of Pharaoh by Jackie French

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Jackie French
Angus & Robertson (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 9780207200823; ISBN-10: 0207200823, April 2007, Paperback, $15.99aud

Jackie French isn’t one to shrink from a challenge. Her young adult novels tend to take on the trickiest of history’s moments, from Hitler’s imaginary daughter, to authorial truth in Shakespeare. Now her latest novel looks at one of our earliest recorded moments of history. What is fascinating is not so much the subject matter of French’s books. All of history is interesting if you look closely enough. What makes French’s work special is the way she makes it vibrant, relevant and modern for young readers, without being too bleak, disturbing or negative. These are books that parents can be happy to have children of any age absorbed in. That isn’t to say that the work is sugar coated. The issues French tackles are complex ones, and the characters’ struggles are big enough to have the widest relevance. However, French avoids any form of sensationalism, and allows the richness of her characterisation, and her obvious belief in the common humanity binding Pharaoh to a modern day schoolchild, to work its magic.

In Pharaoh Prince Narmer is heir to the throne of Thinis. Narmer has everything a young prince could want – good looks, his father’s love and respect, and the love and respect of his people. But he is the younger son, and his older brother Hawk isn’t as helpful and subservient as he appears to be. A visit from a well travelled trader and his assistant Nitho introduces Narmer to the Oracle, and suddenly Thinis, the largest town on the Nile, doesn’t seem like the centre of the universe to him. When he is attacked by a crocodile, and betrayed by those closest to him, Narmer’s world closes, but as he takes his own journey across the desert, the world suddenly opens, along with the future.

Well researched, and beautifully characterised, Pharaoh is, at its heart, a story about coming of age—about growing from youth to maturity. It touches on all the big themes – beauty below the skin, honesty, courage, understanding, and the nature of change, both psychological and global. That it’s set in a historically rich context makes it more fascinating, but Narmer would be a character who would fit in any YA book with a few changes of costume and context:

Narmer leant against the cool stone and closed his eyes. He felt exhausted already. Even though he had been sitting up this past moon, even trying a few cautious steps, it was far more tiring to brace his body against the jiggling of the litter for hours at a time. (80)

Children will instantly warm to Narmer and Nitho, even as they become engrossed in French’s rich descriptions of the daily routines of the traders, the feasting foods, the costumes and the spices which would have characterised life at that time:

It was like a dream, thought Narmer, as servant after servant brought in bales of panther skin, fragrant wood carved into delicate boxes, beads of lapis lazuli and turquoise, the bronze plates he now knew as mirrors, heaps of myrrh resin, slabs of ebony wood, piles of elephant tusk, small bowls filled with a strange, almost green-coloured gold, the rarest in the world, curls of cinnamon bark, khesyt wood, small coloured jars of incense, and eye cosmetics.(143)

There’s a sumptuousness that comes across in French’s descriptions which will excite children and encourage them to find out more. As for adults, don’t be surprised if you find yourself becoming rather hungry while reading this book! If so, there are a few recipes at the back of the book for the full sensual experience. My copy even came with a packet of dates so I could make date bread, which is, incidentally, quite delicious. There are also notes on the text and a quick timeline history of the Middle East. This is an exciting, easy to read, and edifying book which is suitable for all ages. The combination of an excellent, stirring plot, sympathetic and well developed characters, a hint of romance, and a positive, well researched historical context for a critical and surprisingly relevant period in humanity’s makes this a winner.