Book Review: Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir by Agatha Christie
Date published: January 1, 1946
Date finished; April 16, 2023
Rating: A+

In 1930, Agatha Christie was about to go on an adventure.

Newly married to dashing young 2nd husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, Agatha was heading to Syria for Max’s first dig that he would lead. Upon her return, friends and acquaintances would ask her, “How do you live?” This book was her answer.

You will be surprised if you go into this memoir expecting a controlled and plotted account, much like a mystery solved by Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie herself tells at the top of the narrative that this book is not that. Instead, she writes, “It is, in fact, a small beer–a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings.” From my point of view, she sold herself a bit short on that. This book is an account of pure joy from a fearless woman fully embracing her life.

It begins with Christie realizing that last season’s holiday clothes are too tight! This is followed by finding out that it is “out of season” and the stores are not carrying the clothes she needs (oh, and the sales clerk suggests she might try clothes that are the equivalent of the modern “plus size.” The horror!) Is there anyone who can’t relate to that?

Following that, we get a series of adventures, colorful characters, crazy anecdotes, and countless relatable situations. In some ways, I find it surprising that the same woman who lived this life murdered so many (fictional) people.

My biggest question going into this book would be whether or not the more problematic Agatha Christie would show up. I was happy–and relieved–to say there are very few instances of culturally questionable comments. There are a few–at one point, Christie refers to having what is called “Baghdad tummy” (in Iraq) or “Gippy tummy” (in Egypt), which is not great. However, if someone today said they were suffering from “Montezuma’s revenge,” we would all know what they were talking about. Neither is good, but it is hard to point a finger at a behavior that we are still exhibiting.

There was another moment I wanted to address. There is an ethnic group called the Yezidis that Christie describes (in a dispassionate, almost academic way) as Satan worshippers. Alarms immediately went off, and I headed to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia. This group is an ethnic group within (or alongside?) the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. No, they are not Satan worshippers–they are monotheistic with a triune God (like Christianity) but more like Zoroastoran. However, this was misinterpreted (both linguistically and intentionally), but the larger and more powerful groups in the geographical area. The belief was that the Yezidi Peacock Angel was actually Lucifer.

The idea of the Peacock Angel as Lucifer is recounted by Christie, but the question is, where did she get this information? It appears that this was what she was told by the “Mohammedens” working on their dig, and the academic flavor of this passage leads me to believe that Christie later did further research. The idea of the Yezidis as Satan worshippers was academically held at the time, and if she had researched it or spoken to anthropologists of the time, that is what she would have been told. Can we really blame her for that belief if she did her due diligence and came up with that explanation?

The only fault I could find in this book is that sometimes I couldn’t detect the passage of time. I believe the events of this book took place over a few years, but that isn’t clear in the narrative. As we move to the last chapter, we are told that the Mallowans are “back” in the area, meaning they had returned to England at some point. I wish that she had been clearer about the passage of time.

I did have a few complaints about the physical book. First of all, the font was, at times, blurry and hard to read. While I’m sure this was a printing issue, it did make reading the book hard. I also wish that, with this contemporary edition, it had been annotated. There were a lot of phrases and such that were common in the 1930s that I could not identify, as well as some places where added context would have helped. I’m not holding these issues against Agatha Christie’s work, but I wish to see these corrected or added in future editions.

The key to this book is in the epilogue. Christie began writing this in the 30s, shortly after the events of the book. She quickly put it aside for more profitable writing. Then, in 1944 after four years of war, she picked it up again. These memories of a magical time were an escape from her current nightmare. It is the mix of joy and yearning for a return to simpler times that makes this book shine.

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