Tuesday 20 December 2011

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad is a true story told in a collection of emails exchanged between two women, Bee and May.  Bee is a Londoner who needs to find an English-speaking Iraqi to interview for her job with the BBC world service.  After she interviews May, a university professor from Baghdad, the two remain in contact and become close friends.  Bee shares details about life in London and her family and May responds with the brutality and horror of the Iraq invasion.  As things become worse for May, Bee does everything she can to try to help her escape the country for good.

I enjoyed this book at first. It was interesting reading the actual emails the two women shared as their friendship developed and progressed.  These initial emails contained lots of information about family history, everyday life and current events - it was a good way to get to know the two women.  But as the book continued I found myself getting irritated with the fact that every single email ever written between them had been included.  This made things very repetitive at times, especially when May is trying several ways to obtain a visa for the UK and in my opinion, a sensitive editor could have avoided this problem completely.  Some emails could have been cut without the overall effect of the book being diminished.

I also found myself getting a bit annoyed with the English woman, Bee.  She often writes cheerful emails full of family news in an attempt to cheer up May, but this does at times come across as insensitive.  Bee obviously comes from a well-off family and her constant chat about weeks away, holidays and complaining about having to train a new au-pair whilst May is being shot at in the street seems a bit tactless.  At times she is also very blunt with May, and I cringed whilst reading the sections where Bee tells May in no uncertain terms that she won't financially support her when she arrives in England.  

May's emails, on the other hand, perfectly convey how hopeless and frustrated she feels with the situation in her country.  During the periods where her and her husband are basically prisoners in their own home due to the danger, I really empathised with their depression and loneliness.  I was rooting for May throughout the whole book and did become emotionally invested in her.   This was the key strength of the book and I felt it would have been improved by focusing less on Bee and more on May, rather than including every single email written between them.

Verdict: Interesting true story told through emails that could have benefited from a sensitive editor.
Source: Owned
Score: 3 out of 5


  1. An interesting format. I wonder what happened to May? I guess that a desire to find out whether she managed to get to the UK with her husband would keep me reading on.

  2. This one sounds intriguing and reminds me of Reading Lolita in Teheran by Azar Nafisi. Do you know it?

    I think it would be interesting to read something about a personal account on the things that were going on in Iraq. I think I will add it to non-fiction books to be read.

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Normally I enjoy true stories like this but not when they're written in letters (or email). It's all a little too much information.

  4. Linda, the ending is given away in the introduction to my edition so there wasn't any urgency. That was a shame.

    Sabrina, I do want to read Reading Lolita in Teheran and I suspect the title was chosen to appeal to fans of that book.

    Trish, you're exactly right about it being too much information. A good editor would have solved many problems.