The Names of Things by Susan Brind Morrow

An exceptional, dreamy journey through Egypt, Sudan and the frontiers where words meet reality.

The Names of Things belongs in a category all of its own. At times travel memoirs, at times etymological musings, the personal and the academic blend in a unique story of how Susan Brind Morrow fell in love with Egypt and all things old. With a curious eye and a hunger to know the roots of everything, she digs under the surface of words and language to uncover the traditions and stories they came from.

Words begin as description. They are prismatic, vehicles of hidden, deeper shades of thought. You can hold them up at different angles until the light bursts through with an unexpected colour. The word carries the living thing concealed across millennia.

Above all, Brind Morrow is fascinated with the connection between words and nature. The stark colours of the desert read as clearly as language to her and tracking down the origin of the word gives her as much pleasure as a hunter following a trail.

The flamingo is the hieroglyph for red. All red things: anger, blood, the desert are spelled with the flamingo. The Red Sea hills are mostly red. The red rock is vibrant in the changing light.

But The Names of Things is a strange, slow book that follows its own tempo, the scenes unfolding with the understatement of the present tense and like the emptiness of the desert, Brind Morrow leaves spaces for the reader to fill in as she relates the course of her journey. We learn of the deaths of her brother and sister back home in the cold, still Canada so close to her heart. Why she trades this for the opposite climate in Egypt isn’t spelled out. The reader is expected to understand.

And so we’re drawn in and charmed by the life of this woman whose modest example demonstrates just how easily a female can travel in a society of men.

I had learned how to enter this state of honorary man , with a stream of guttural Arabic, the last thing anyone expected to hear from a young American woman. And I entered it joyfully for her was another self. … in Egypt I became a man.

Susan Brind Morrow is a great traveler as she learns to take the place and the people who live in it on their own terms. Without losing her own identity, her love for the culture and people she comes across is apparent and her own presence in the story is slight as she gives way to the vivid colours, emotions and stories of the land she travels in. Taking us though home life in Canada, studies in New York and then extensive travels and residence in Cairo, Sudan and the Sinai, the narrative shifts around like the desert wind until you no longer quite know what you’re reading but you’re transported all the same.

The Names of Things is a beautiful book by a profound writer who successfully accomplishes the magic of tying together any number of special moments into a single masterpiece.