Author Jennifer Steil has created a nuanced and strong-willed lead in Miranda, a well traveled artist and newly minted wife of a charming diplomat. Her most recent venture has led to the dusty streets of a fictional middle eastern country, friendly enough to host ambassadors yet risky enough to keep them surrounded by bodyguards. While the story may resonate in a special way for the wanderers among us, this book is for every reader looking to disappear into a well-crafted and winding story.
Through a series of past-dated chapters we are introduced to the old Miranda, weaving through the marketplace with ease, welcoming wanderers into her apartment in the Old City and negotiating with her lover. A chance meeting (and her up-for-anything spirit) thrusts her out of her element and into the embassy, a culture within a culture, complete with its own set of rules and customs. Miranda takes refuge in her studio, where she keeps both her paintings and her past lives under lock and key. Steil has given her a kind and understanding partner in Finn, an eloquent and witty career diplomat whose impulse and willingness to protect her secrets has everything to do with the need to protect his own.
Her secret painting is a refuge, but not an uncomplicated one. Like many readers, I have not lived or created art in a society that does not welcome it, so in this reading I relied entirely on our author’s experience and research. As the women of Mazrooq blossomed in the relative safety of Miranda’s studio I felt wary, awaiting the white savior complex that distorts so many cross-cultural relationships.
It is not easy to write about situations where the deck is stacked in the favor of whiteness or wealth, whether you’re taking a position or simply writing from your perspective with honesty and awareness. In more than one situation, most notably the orphanage and the vital scenes nearer to the end of the book, the Mazrooqi characters are drawn with more complexity and weight than I expected. In a culture where self-expression is so scrutinized it can be easy to mistake an outward simplicity for a lack of complexity, but I found that Steil uses it as an opportunity to dive more deeply into the unseen.
Among the group of students in Miranda’s airy studio we meet a Tazkia, a supporting character who could fill a book of her own. The stakes are as high for her as for Miranda and Finn, even higher without the prospect of diplomatic evacuation. The character shows off Steil’s knack for the gray areas, and a gift for writing inner conflict just as engaging as the visible kind. Miranda assumes a lot about what Tazkia wants and needs; sometimes her instinct is close to the truth and other times she is way off base.
Even as she deals with subjects we often take to extremes in real life, Steil is a grounded writer. Her treatment especially of sexuality and intimacy reminds the reader that these issues do not exist in a vacuum, but parts of a more complicated whole. I found Miranda’s sense of privacy to be so modern, not coy or repressed but simply hard earned and closely guarded.
I was also surprised in a good way, by the treatment of villains in this story. Like most “bad guys,” Miranda and Finn’s foes are disliked openly by the people around them. But in the few pages that describe them in detail or even show the scene from their perspective, the reader comes to take their rage less personally. They are not necessarily smart or calculating, but perhaps caught up in a political moment or profoundly unhappy with their own situation.
A cloud of suspicion follows the diplomats to every party and event, casting a shadow over friendships and colleagues. It only takes a few unsavory interactions with her husband’s co-workers and their wives to fuel her already cynical fire. In addition to the author’s personal experience in the diplomatic world, the credit page hints at a wealth of research from negotiators, diplomats and embassy staff.
Anyone who has worked or lived abroad will recognize the well-written tension between deep loneliness and the exquisite pleasure of anonymity, often two sides of the same foreign currency. While the sweeping vistas or light speed traffic of a new city might make our first impressions, she points out the ordinary elements that stick with us long after we have left. In their various captivities our characters cling to the textures and smells that keep them sane.
Steil writes with restraint when it counts, keeping the wire taut even when the worst nightmares descend on Miranda and Finn. Her work is infused with a sense of time which acts like a thickener, turning pain into discomfort and shock into slow-burning disillusion. The book covers impressive ground, keeping four or five storylines alive to the end and often reaching back into time to clarify or complicate the present moment.
In art school, somewhere between color theory and perspective drawing, there is a lesson about negative space. Students learn that the shape of what you see is created by the things you can’t, and their art advances as they work in the unseen. The Ambassador’s Wife is a story of that sacred space: between head and the heart, the spouse and the partner, the artist and society, mothers and children.
The Ambassador’s Wife
July 28th, 2015