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”.

Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Morocco, Nina Bawden, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden

WomanOfMyAge

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 160 pages; 1992.

Until very recently I had Nina Bawden pegged as a children’s author. Then, while browsing BookMooch a week or so ago, I accidentally discovered she had a rather extensive back catalogue of adult fiction that I simply did not know about. I promptly acquired a rather battered copy of A Woman of My Age (Virago Modern Classic Number 366) and set about reading it.

First published in 1967, this short novel reminded me very much of Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark  in that it tells the story of one woman’s emotional journey — figuratively and physically — as she struggles to come to terms with growing older and finding her rightful place in the world.

From the outset it is clear that our narrator is not content:

I find this so difficult. When I look in the mirror — not to see if the grey roots are beginning to show before the next tinting, but in the same way I used to look at myself when I was seventeen, at what, whom and why — I remain, as I did then, cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my situation: I am Elizabeth Jourdelay, married to Richard, the mother of his two sons. I am, I am middle-aged. This is an embarrassment that has come upon me suddenly, taking me by surprise so that I don’t really believe it. Looking in the mirror I see the wrinkles, but perhaps tomorrow they will be gone and my skin will be smooth again. Though wrinkles are not important. The important thing is that I am in the middle of my life and I feel as I did when I was adolescent, that I do not know where to go from here.

Now, on holiday in Morocco with Richard, Elizabeth longs for the desert because her life was “crowded, cluttered up”. But the journey is far from the calm, peaceful one for which she longs. Alongside the heat, there are other English travellers with whom she must contend: the delightfully eccentric and elderly Mr and Mrs Hobbs, and the slightly vain, thrice-married Flora and her much younger lover, Adam.

While Elizabeth enjoys the Hobbs’ company, because they remind her of the parents she never had, she finds Flora irritating. Indeed, Flora had gone to Oxford with Richard, and there are suggestions that they pair may have been lovers in the distant past and that their accidental meeting in Fez may have been pre-arranged. These niggling suspicions eat away at Elizabeth, who finds herself analysing her own marriage with a man she barely knew when she married him, aged 20, some 18 years ago.

Her somewhat melancholy recollections of their life together are seamlessly interspersed with what is happening in the present time, as the couple travel from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains. The reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises in order that the marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s “rules” and constraints. Raised by two spinster aunts, one of whom brought her up “to give too much importance to careers and causes and things of the mind”, Elizabeth finds marriage and motherhood constricting.

A highly political creature — “I was very unsure of myself except in matters of political opinion” — she longs to become a local councillor but Richard thought it a “dirty game and he could not understand how I could endure it” .

Later, when she raises the subject of getting a job, the response from her mother-in-law is crushing:

She said, first, ‘Do you really want one, dear? Richard and I thought you had settled so nicely’ — as if I was some sort of jelly — and then, ‘Well, if you really want to, I suppose it would be nice for you to earn some pin money.’

Unfortunately, it does not pan out as planned.

Perhaps it was stupid of me, but I had expected so much, if in a rather
a vague way, that the reality was a bitter shock: I was unqualified, I
had no degree, I wasn’t even trained as a secretary. It soon became
clear that nothing which came up to my expectations was open to me.
When I realised this, the walls seemed to close in. I became a gloomily
devoted mother.

There’s something very sad about Elizabeth reconciling her expectations with keeping her family happy, because it’s clear that her husband has not had to do the same thing. Of course, we only hear Elizabeth’s side of the story, but as the narrative progresses you begin to understand that Richard is not the saintly school teacher husband he purports to be.

And while Bawden deftly captures all the tensions and betrayals and compromises that married people make, she also does a nice line in setting the mood. Her descriptions of Morocco are particularly vivid.

The terrace of the casbah fell away down the hill, dovetailed into one another like the streets and courts of a medieval city, all enclosed in a wall of the same red earth. At one end there was a little tower where cranes were nesting. Beyond the wall was the palm-grove, a chess-board of different coloured grasses, and beyond the oasis, the flat, ochre colour of the desert. The air quivered, not just far in a heat haze, but close by me on the parapet, in a kind of vibrating brightness that hurt my eyes.

In fact, setting the book in Morocco is a clever touch, because it allows Elizabeth to compare the subjugation of women in North African societies with her own situation. Indeed, when Flora points out that “their men shut them up at home; even if you visit the house, the women don’t appear socially. Just to serve the food” the point seemingly goes over Elizabeth’s head, but it did not go over mine.

Having read my first Nina Bawden adult novel I’m keen to read the others — there’s certainly plenty to keep me occupied as you can see by this and this. Next on the rank is The Birds in the Trees or maybe I will try Afternoon of a Good Women, two books I mooched even before I’d come to the end of this one. If they are half as good as A Woman of My Age I am sure to be in for a treat.

Author, Book review, Debbie Taylor, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Morocco, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fourth Queen’ by Debbie Taylor

FourthQueen

Fiction  – paperback; Penguin; 496 pages; 2004.

Debbie Taylor’s The Fourth Queen is a sanguine, sexy tale set in a harem in Morocco.

It’s based on the true story of Helen Gloag, who, fleeing the poverty of Scotland, finds herself on a ship bound for America. When the ship is captured by pirates, the young, inexperienced and prudish teenager is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

In the harem run by the cruel and charismatic Emperor Sidi Mohammed, Helen’s world is turned completely upside down. From a naive waif with little sexual experience she becomes the emperor’s fourth wife (hence the book’s title) and lives a life that must have been totally unimaginable for a western woman in the 18th century.

Taylor’s writing is accomplished and confident, if overly descriptive at times. She manages to convey the “richness” of Helen’s surrounds using lush and evocative language.

But the plot, which is a kind of murder-mystery revolving around the poisoning of several of the queens, is lacklustre and doesn’t justify devoting 496 pages to it.

All in all, it was a pleasant enough read but nothing too earth shattering.

If you have read M. R. Lovric’s Carnivale and enjoyed it, you will probably like The Fourth Queen, too.