20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Kit spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Paul Bowles, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles

Up-above-the-world

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 223 pages; 2009.

Paul Bowles, an American-born writer and composer, is probably best known for his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. He penned Up Above the World, his fourth (and last) novel, some 17 years later. I picked it up by chance while browsing in the library last week and am so pleased I did.

A masterpiece of suspense writing

This novel is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married couple who are taken advantage of while travelling through Central America. It’s the mid-1960s and Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, regard themselves as travellers, not tourists. But for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming.

Within about 15 pages I’d decided these people, regardless of wealth and circumstance, probably shouldn’t leave their own homes — their trusting nature would only lead them into trouble.

It all begins with one simple act of kindness. Day loans $10 to Mrs Rainmantle, a Canadian passenger on the cruise ship, who has forgotten her line of credit. When Dr Slade finds out about the loan he is mildly horrified — he thinks the “big woman with pink cheeks” is “ridiculous” and dubs her “Mrs Crazy” behind her back. It’s not that he distrusts her, he just finds her tiresome and a little bit parasitic.

No escape

But later, when the Slades finish their voyage at Puerto Farol — before catching a train further inland — they find Mrs Rainmantle has checked in to the same hotel. It seems there is no escaping this rather large, jolly woman, who now wants to borrow some of Day’s clothes. That’s because the British consul won’t let her take her luggage from the ship until she pays an outstanding bar bill.

But once the Slades do, eventually, escape the clutches of Mrs Rainmantle, their holiday fails to improve: if anything it gets worse.

When Dr Slade falls ill, Day is grateful for the help she receives from a handsome young expatriate American man, Grove Soto, and his teenage Cuban mistress, whom she has befriended. But all is not as it seems.

There are aspects to Grove’s character that suggest he is not a man to be trusted, but Day doesn’t seem to have an ounce of paranoia in her body. It takes her an awfully long time to realise Grove’s nefarious ways, and even then she wonders if maybe she’s just imagining it.

A slow build-up of tension

What I really loved about this story is the way that Bowles builds up the suspense slowly but surely, so that by the time you realise what he’s doing it’s too late to back out and put the book down — you have to keep ploughing on regardless because you simply have to know what happens to these poor unsuspecting people. And yet, when he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level, it never seems false or showy. There was never a moment when I thought it would be impossible to fool two travellers in this way — in other words, despite the horror of the story, it is entirely plausible, which only makes it more terrifying.

And while his prose style might be economical this doesn’t mean he leaves out important detail. In one particular scene Day hears a small child in another room, but Grove insists that it could be a parrot — immediately the reader isn’t quite sure what to believe. This sense of self-doubt is everywhere in the book and it creates a growing feeling of unease in the reader. The line between truth and paranoia is a very thin one indeed.

It’s only at the very end, when events are explained and you discover the true nature of Grove’s scheming ways, that you come to understand what the Slades have endured. It’s not pleasant, but then suspense novels aren’t supposed to be pleasant; they’re designed to be creepy and unnerving. And John Bowles’ Up Above the World is one of the creepiest and most unnerving novels I’ve ever encountered. More, please.