Author Juliana Maio presents us in City of the Sun with a gratifying bit of what Alan Furst calls “near history.” With vivid, urgent scenes of World War II Cairo, Ms. Maio portrays the struggle of the Jews in that city in the early days of the war. She lays over this a reasonably effective romance, which serves as the centerpiece to this novel, and the whole works rather well.
Maya Blumenthal, her father, and her brother Erik have fled Paris in 1941, having first flown from Nazi Germany before that. Cairo is an unusual refuge for displaced Jews at the time, many of whom at this point wind up in Britain. But the Blumenthals have relations in Cairo, and it is at least a good temporary shelter. But Erik isn’t just another Jewish refugee. He’s an advanced physicist whose latest paper has drawn the attention of the Americans and the Germans. Both want his expertise for their weapons programs. Enter Mickey Connolly, a brash American journalist who in the course of things is recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan into espionage, specifically the “acquisition” of young Erik Blumenthal.
Ms. Maio’s makes it her mission here to educate her readers about wartime Cairo and its pivotal role in the changed and changing Middle East. This she does through conversations of people in the know and official pronouncements and events, and she does it superbly. It was a great education for me – I had never been exposed to the history before, in spite of my own father’s service in the Army Air Corps at the time. She spices up the telling with two sure bets, an espionage thriller and a romance. And, surprisingly, she handles both with assurance, delivering believability and a couple of really magic scenes.
This is a highly diverting and educating piece, and I recommend it. It’s solid history delivered with multi-faceted appeal.