LONGLISTED FOR THE BRIDPORT NOVEL AWARD
In beautifully rendered prose, a mother and a daughter struggle as outsiders in Baghdad and London in this intergenerational drama set against a background of political tension and intrigue.
“Who would be charmed by tales of life in the beautiful old house on the banks of the Tigris—looted now no doubt, its shutters torn and the courtyard strewn with mattresses?”.
One night in 2003, Anglo-Iraqi psychiatrist Mona Haddad has a surprise visitor to her London office, an old acquaintance Duncan Claybourne. But why has he come? Will his confession finally lay bare what happened to her family before they escaped Iraq?
Their stories begin in 1937, when Mona’s mother Diane, a lively Englishwoman newly married to Ibrahim, an ambitious Iraqi doctor, meets Duncan by chance. Diane is working as a nanny for the Iraqi royal family. Duncan is a young British Embassy officer in Baghdad. When the king dies in a mysterious accident, Ibrahim and his family suspect Diane of colluding with Duncan and the British.
Summoning up the vanished world of mid-twentieth-century Baghdad, Elizabeth Loudon’s richly evocative story of one family calls into question British attitudes and policies in Iraq and offers up a penetrating reflection on cross-cultural marriage and the lives of women caught between different worlds.
Publisher: Hoopoe / The American University of Cairo Press
Format: Ebook, Hardback & Paperback (16 May 2023)
Duncan Claybourne came to me another five or six times over the next few weeks. Always at six, but once he stayed until nine. Once he brought three faded photograph albums in a plastic Tesco’s bag. Once he left after forty-five minutes.
I took no notes until he left, but as soon as he’d gone, I wrote and wrote. We never discussed payment, and the longer I let it appear that he was doing me a favor of some sort, that these were sociable visits from an old family friend—or warning visits from a ministry— the less able I was to say that I price my time.
Some of his tales I knew, some I didn’t, and some I never believed, but I listened as quietly as I could until his final visit. He was giving me gold, after all. It’s thanks to him that I can piece this story together, using his raw materials for my own reconstructions. I can quarry my family’s private past the way my Aunt Laila used to resurrect Sumerian pots in her office at the Museum, gluing them carefully back into shape. I used to help her in her work. It was peaceful, sorting through crates of earthenware pots, picking out wedges of sandstone on which hieroglyphics were carved, touching pieces of gold necklaces hung with stones. Some objects were near perfect, despite their age: they’d be displayed in glass cabinets at the Museum. Others were for storage and research, for the historians of tomorrow. With a white cloth spread over her lap, Laila would put on her gloves and lift a magnifying glass to inspect a hairline crack here, a sediment there. Sighing with pleasure, she’d note missing corners, faded paint at the rim, a chip in the base. An almost holy exchange was taking place between her and the object, a midwifery of the dead. Such tiny salvations! I remember her joy when she found a perfect cylinder seal engraved with tiny lions and bulls that roll around, over and over, the animals locked in perpetual battle as a man raised a spear above them. How she’d take a felt-tip pen and mark each object with a tiny accession number before sealing it into a plastic bag filled with silica, then rub Elizabeth Arden cream into her hands before sliding her rings back onto her swollen fingers.
My own treasures, the lost and the recovered, are not so substantial. They are only memories, unreliable and powerless to cure. For so long all I’d had was the moment when, sticky-eyed and yawning, I watched Ziad open his rucksack and tuck his copy of The Prophet inside. Or when he hugged me and I caught a bitter smell, like a forest floor in autumn when something’s rotten beneath a carpet of leaves. Fear. The way he crept softly out of the tent and vanished into the empty quarter like a bottle thrown into the sea. The margin of shade that shrank as I sat on a rock and waited, the sun crawling over my feet, my ankles, my legs until the light hit my face and a thought came to me like a bird landing in a thick rush of wings in a tree.
I’d never see Ziad again. I’d known it then.
When I listened to Duncan in my consulting room, I had stones in my throat, but I stayed still, for slowly I was given a gift of sorts. I began to see my mother as she’d once been: Diane Cutler, the pretty young nurse from Hampshire who married an Iraqi doctor before the war and went to live in a house in Baghdad where she was never alone, the house where my brothers and I were born and where, one day, my father would die. My mother the liar who spat out the truth, the avenging angel of Baghdad, and my mother the girl who’d sat on the upper deck of the Strathdern in December 1937 and watched the south coast of England disappear.
At least, I thought, I can tell her story. As for my own, I tucked that away in the dark of my past.
My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invite and to the publisher for providing the extract.
What others are saying about A Stranger in Baghdad:
“A Stranger in Baghdad is vivid and fascinating. I found it completely enthralling.” —Lissa Evans, author of Crooked Heart
“Original, beautifully written and intriguing. Elizabeth Loudon is an exciting new voice.” —Katie Fforde, author of Stately Pursuits
“Intriguing and thoughtfully worked”—Justin Marozzi, author Baghdad and Islamic Empires
“Told with mesmerizing power . . . truly moving”—Rana Haddad, author of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor
“Intriguing and atmospheric”—Alice Jolly, author of Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile
Elizabeth Loudon is a former college lecturer and charity development consultant. She has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MA in English from Cambridge University, and has taught at Smith, Amherst, and Williams Colleges. She’s published fiction and memoir in the Denver Quarterly, INTRO, North American Review, and Gettysburg Review, among others, and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship. She drew on her experiences traveling in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1970s when writing A Stranger in Baghdad, her first novel. It was longlisted for the Bridport Novel Award and won the Stroud Book Festival Fiction Competition. She lives in London.