Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Palace of Desire (Naguib Mahfouz)

A bit of beauty and more than a bit of debauchery in Cairo


Title: Palace of Desire (original Arabic title: Qasr al-Shawk)
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: William Maynard Hutchins
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Classic / Middle East
First published: 1957 (in Arabic)
Edition: Paperback, published by Black Swan in 1994

Having given up his vices after his son’s death, ageing patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad pursues an arousing lute-player – only to find she has married his eldest son. His rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination as they test the loosening reins of societal and parental control. And Ahmad’s youngest son, in an unforgettable portrayal of unrequited love, ardently courts the sophisticated daughter of a rich Europeanised family.


I had been looking forward to reading this second book in the Cairo Trilogy, as I really loved Palace Walk. I was not disappointed.

The feel of this one is quite different from the first book. Whereas the first book really gave me a feeling of restriction, this one felt like it was looking for ways to be free. Free in body, but also definitely free in mind.

It mainly follow the three men of the family, the father, now a man in his sixties, and his two sons, Yasin and Kamal, as they live their lives in 1920s Cairo. The writing reflects whose thoughts and actions we are following and is quite introspective. My favourite perspective was Kamal’s, as he had such a romantic, but also inquisitive soul. His reflections were the most philosophical and I really enjoyed that. His musings on love were exquisite.

There is something about the writing that I really love. Yes, in many ways it is of its time and place, but there is also something very current and readable about it. I did not feel like I was reading a book that was written in the 1950s. There were passages in this book that were truly very beautiful and that made me smile, simply because the prose was so beautiful. Of course, I partly have the translater to thank for that, but still.

I do wish that the female characters from the first book would have gotten more page time and because of that I did not quite love this book as much as the first one, but I still really enjoyed it. A female perspective would have just added something extra that it kind of missed here and there.

It did take me a while to read the book. I do not think this is the kind of book to rush. I did not find it dense at all, but it definitely demanded attentive reading. I guess I did not really want to miss anything.

All in all, a worthy sequel to the first book and I am looking forward to reading the final book in this trilogy.

6 out of 7 stars

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