At 512 pages, "Palace Walk" is a carefully detailed domestic drama that proceeds at a leisurely pace, exploring the day-to-day life of a WWI-era family and eventually the impact of larger political events as Egypt struggles for independence from British rule. Much of the novel concerns the conflicts between an authoritarian family patriarch, his submissive wife, and his young sons and daughters, whose own struggles for independence mirror the rise of nationalistic spirit that erupts in street demonstrations and strikes.
For Western readers, the novel is an introduction to the values and dynamics of the traditional Islamic family, where "respectable" women are housebound, and only boys and men are free to get an education and find employment. The novel also reveals the double standard that permits men to be less than faithful to their wives, while skillfully maintaining an honorable reputation and keeping a firm grip on the moral high ground at home. Meanwhile, the novel reveals how thoroughly Islamic beliefs infuse daily life and social values.
Reviewers here look for comparisons to the Grand Masters of fiction (Dickens Dostoyevsky, etc.). But for me, the daily routines of home life, the rivalries between siblings, the worried concern of marriage for two daughters (one pretty, one plain), coming-of-age affairs of the heart, the threat of divorce, and chapters devoted to other such matters make this novel much in the tradition of Jane Austen. A difference, however, is that surprise events at its close raise new concerns that are left unresolved, and propel the reader onward to the next novel in this wonderful and very readable trilogy.