Summary and book reviews of The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

The Egyptologist

A Novel

by Arthur Phillips

The Egyptologist
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2005, 400 pages

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Book Summary

This darkly comic labyrinth of a story opens on the desert plains of Egypt in 1922, then winds its way from the slums of Australia to the ballrooms of Boston, by way of Oxford, the battlefields of the First World War, and a royal court in turmoil.

From the bestselling author of Prague comes a witty, inventive, brilliantly constructed novel about an Egyptologist obsessed with finding the tomb of an apocryphal king. This darkly comic labyrinth of a story opens on the desert plains of Egypt in 1922, then winds its way from the slums of Australia to the ballrooms of Boston by way of Oxford, the battlefields of the First World War, and a royal court in turmoil.

Just as Howard Carter unveils the tomb of Tutankhamun, making the most dazzling find in the history of archaeology, Oxford-educated Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush is digging himself into trouble, having staked his professional reputation and his fiancée's fortune on a scrap of hieroglyphic pornography. Meanwhile, a relentless Australian detective sets off on the case of his career, spanning the globe in search of a murderer. And another murderer. And possibly another murderer. The confluence of these seemingly separate stories results in an explosive ending, at once inevitable and utterly unpredictable.

Arthur Phillips leads this expedition to its unforgettable climax with all the wit and narrative bravado that made Prague one of the most critically acclaimed novels of 2002. Exploring issues of class, greed, ambition, and the very human hunger for eternal life, this staggering second novel gives us a glimpse of Phillips's range and maturity–and is sure to earn him further acclaim as one of the most exciting authors of his generation.

31 Dec. Sunset. Outside the tomb of Atum-hadu. On the Victrola 50:
"I'm Sitting on the Back Porch Swing (Won't You Come Sit by Me, Dear?)."

My darling Margaret, my eternal Queen whose beauty astonishes the sun,

Your father and I are heading home tomorrow, back to you—the luxurious riverboat north to Cairo, a night at that city's Hotel of the Sphinx, then by rail to Alexandria, and from there we have booked victorious passage on the Italian steamer Cristoforo Colombo, ports of call Malta, London, New York, from where we shall catch the very first train to you in Boston. You shall embrace your fiancé and your father by 20 January.

Upon my return, our wedding will, of course, be our most pressing business. Then, after refreshed preparations, I shall lead a second expedition back here to Deir el Bahari to conduct a photographic survey of the wall paintings and clear the artefacts and treasures from the tomb. All that remains this evening is to seal up the...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think Arthur Phillips used an epistolary structure for The Egyptologist? Would it have been possible for him to structure it differently? What effect do the letters and journal entries have on the voice of the novel?
  2. Early in the novel, Trilipush writes to Margaret, stating "These writings are the story of my discovery, my trouncing of doubters and selfdoubt. I am entrusting to you nothing less than my immortality.... If something should happen to my body, then you are now responsible . . . to ensure that my name and the name of Atum-hadu never perish" (5–6). What drives his obsession with ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson

Phillips follows up his first novel, the best-selling Prague (2002), with an equally inventive if totally unexpected foray into ancient Egypt...Some readers might find the amount of pharaonic minutiae tedious reading, but it all serves to support the novel's shocking yet entirely credible ending and its themes of the longing for immortality and the nature of identity. Phillips proves himself once again to be a wildly creative storyteller.

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson

Phillips follows up his first novel, the best-selling Prague (2002), with an equally inventive if totally unexpected foray into ancient Egypt...Some readers might find the amount of pharaonic minutiae tedious reading, but it all serves to support the novel's shocking yet entirely credible ending and its themes of the longing for immortality and the nature of identity. Phillips proves himself once again to be a wildly creative storyteller.

Publishers Weekly

Phillips is a master manipulator, able to assume a dozen convincingly different voices at will, and his book is vastly entertaining. It's apparent that something dire is afoot, but the reader, while apprehensive, can never quite figure out what. The ending, which cannot be revealed, is shocking and cleverly contrived.

Kirkus Reviews

This is a suave, elegant novel, replete with sinuously composed sentences and delicious wordplay....Phillips's formidable research and witty prose make this one well worth your time. He's quite possibly a major novelist in the making.

Library Journal - Edward Cone

Unlike Prague, whose characters moved at a leisurely pace, this work offers, quite tongue in cheek, a tableau of action and adventure in a 1920s setting. Highly recommended for everyone in search of buried treasure.

Author Blurb Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club
The dueling voices of a nostalgic detective and the monomaniacal archaeologist he pursues around the world are only part of the treasure contained in The Egyptologist. Crafted with nuanced erudition and literary flair, Phillips uncovers the hieroglyphs (not hieroglyphics–but you'll learn that) and building blocks beneath how we construct, interpret, and trust our storytellers. Highly textured, quirky, serpentine, surprising.

Author Blurb George Saunders, author of Pastoralia and Civil War Land in Bad Decline
A wildly pleasurable, dazzling reading experience, big in heart and execution crazed, ecstatic, and entertaining in the deepest sense of the word. Arthur Phillips is a terrifically talented writer, and these pages overflow with wit, mad humor, and, finally, a deep undercurrent of pathos.

Author Blurb Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook
What a splendid, funny, bewitching book . . . Beneath Arthur Phillips's singular wit and peerless comic timing, lies a spot-on parable of twentieth-century self-delusion and the painfully fruitless quest for immortality.

Reader Reviews

john johannson

mind boggling classic egyptian book to keep the kings sataisfied

adam ballanger

Step into the mind of a genius. If you are familiar with any of Arthur Phillips other works be sure to read this non-stop page turner.

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Beyond the Book

The excerpt at BookBrowse will give you a good idea of the tone and style of the book but, not to be missed, is the author's essay about how he researched the book and why he believes Hemingway's advice to 'write what you know' is not the case.

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