July 07, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Down the Nile

Current Status
In Season
Rosemary Mahoney
Little, Brown and Company
Travel, Memoir
We gave it an A

About seven years ago, when she was 38, Rosemary Mahoney rowed down the Nile, alone, in a small skiff. ”What I wanted, really, was not just to seethe Nile River,” she writes, ”but to sit in the middle of it in my own boat, alone.” Whether she was deranged, courageous, or a little of both is a question that hangs over Down the Nile, her riveting account of the experience, a portrait of the artist as an obsessive, sunburned young woman and of the complicated male-dominated society that she encountered in that part of the world.

There have been countless books about the Nile, and Mahoney has familiarized herself with the best of them, interweaving the adventures of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale with her own crisply described experience. Coolly dismantling some long-standing myths, she makes the modern Nile her own: ”For all its fame and legend,” she writes, ”it looked no more or less majestic than the Ohio River creeping through Pittsburgh.”

Yet the Nile remains a deeply mysterious, vaguely sinister body of water, one that arouses deep-seated fears Mahoney feels compelled to conquer. She describes her first tentative excursion as being ”like that dream of stepping off a towering cliff only to find that you can fly.” And fly, eventually, she does, although she is repeatedly stopped by unforeseen challenges and characters. The trip would be no more than a gutsy stunt if Mahoney were not such a beautifully precise writer and such a compassionate observer. It is easy for her to empathize with Amr Khaled, the grave, bighearted boatman who accompanies her on the first leg of her journey and whose humanity will engrave itself in your memory.

But Mahoney also tries to overcome her understandable biases against the men — and she meets men almost exclusively — who give her little reason to trust them. The Luxor shopkeeper who regales her with tales of the seedy sexual bargains he strikes with older Western women (”A lot of these women they married, but the husband is no good. Weak benis. Or some husbands is gay…”). The boys who ask with mingled contempt and lust, ”You want make sex with me?” And Mahmoud, who rams into her skiff one night as she sleeps, and then chases her downstream until she gives him money. He is, in Mahoney’s hands, first a terrifying specter and, later, a pitiful, desperately poor family man; their interaction becomes a vivid example of the way people from radically different cultures routinely misunderstand one another. In the course of her trip, Mahoney traversed just 120 miles of the world’s longest river; by the end of her brilliant travelogue, you’ll wish she’d tackled the whole length. A

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