Author Yasmine El Rashidi’s debut novel, “Chronicle of a Last Summer,” is actually the story of three beastly hot summers in Cairo: the first in 1984, when the unnamed narrator is 5; the second in 1998 as she’s finding her way as an artist; and finally the summer of 2014, when she has found her footing as both a filmmaker and a writer.
El Rashidi uses the story of one woman’s coming of age as a base for her larger, primary focus: the political history of Egypt, which comes to us through overheard conversations, flashbacks, and lived experiences — with mixed results.
The narrator and her mother live in an expansive house that, years before, had been filled with family, servants and love. When the narrator’s grandmother dies and her activist father is taken prisoner in 1984, the home — and their lives — begin to slowly fall into disrepair. The narrator questions if she has the activist gene that is such a source of pride in her family, particularly for her uncle and her cousin, Dido. “Dido loved me, but ... I could feel his disappointment. I knew I lacked the gene.”
By the time the narrator’s father returns to the family in 2014, her uncle has died, and her cousin, to whom she is now estranged, is a political prisoner. The sight of her father after so many years away is overwhelming (“in those first weeks I couldn’t look at Baba for long without needing to turn away,”) and her mother, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, turns him away.
A heartbreaking turn of events, but with so much of the novel given over to political history and detached, pensive scenes, the characters’ plights feel distant and artificial. Clearly El Rashidi wants her readers to gain an understanding of the modern history of Egypt, but she would be more effective in this aim by writing either a character-driven novel or a historical work. She cannot, it seems, do both.