Esmond and Ilia follows Marina Warner's beautiful, penniless young mother Ilia as she leaves southern Italy in 1945 to travel alone to London. Her husband, an English colonel, is still away in the war in the East as she begins to learn how to be Mrs. Esmond Warner, an Englishwoman. With diamond rings on her fingers and brogues on her feet, Ilia steps fearlessly into the world of cricket and riding. But, without prospect of work in a bleak, war-ravaged England, Esmond remembers the glorious ease of Cairo during his periods of leave from the desert campaign. There, they start a bookshop, a branch of W. H. Smith's. But growing resistance to foreign interests, especially British, erupts in the 1952 uprising, and the Cairo Fire burns the city clean. This memoir resurrects the fraught union and unrequited hopes of Warner's parents. Memory intertwines richly with myth, the river Lethe feeling as real as the Nile.
At first, Esmond and Ilia could be a fairy-tale romance ... Besides evoking the vanished pomps of yesterday, Esmond and Ilia periodically enlarges its perspective to include chapters about Victorian adventurers in the Middle East ... Needless to say, Esmond and Ilia lacks a fairy-tale ending — after all, it’s about real life — but it is nonetheless wondrously entertaining, an ideal book for a long, hot summer.
[Warner] went on a treasure hunt, mining a dragon’s trove of letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper clippings, clothes and other relics that retained talismanic force ... In the book, taking up these artifacts, she sets them amid other touchstones, vividly incarnating not only her parents but the rich historical, political and cultural tapestry they inhabited ... Her words are her lamp; and her restoration of her parents’ story is a ravishment, unforgettable, illuminating ... With Esmond and Ilia, her memoir-cum-fable of the hoopoe and the porpoise, Ms. Warner has reopened the window that slammed down so abruptly on her childhood’s golden age, and let the light back in.
Warner is an expert on all facets of myth, legend and fairy tale, whose writings have explored everything from Ovid to the Brothers Grimm to the Arabian Nights. As such, it makes sense that even a personal work recounting eight years of her parents’ life should be envisioned as a story of the power of narrative, the clash of cultures and the role of the heroine, told by means of lore, symbols and allegory ... In recounting the story of these early years of the couple’s marriage, Warner weaves together fact and fiction in the most dazzling and inventive ways ... Whole sections of Esmond and Ilia read like fiction, complete with dialogue and interior thought. Warner knows the cadences of her characters’ speech, certain phrases are presumably excavated from memory, and a rich imagination fills in the rest ... The fallibility of the project is built in. One can never really know one’s parents’ lives, Warner argues — or, for that matter, one’s own before the age of 6 — but in embracing embellishment and misinterpretation, she elevates this family history to a work of art far denser and more delightful, both more erudite and earthy than anything that cleaved meticulously to the known facts could have been ... This delicate dance between the intimacy of “my mother and father” and the remove of Ilia and Esmond charts subtle shifts in perspective, and captures that process of transition by which matters of historical record morph into family lore. Given her area of expertise, it’s no surprise that Warner should spin such enchanting versions of the fables that underpin her own existence. But, refracted through the prism of one marriage, she also interrogates Britain’s dwindling power in a postcolonial world, ideas of Englishness and the immigrant experience.