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”.

6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

Without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. Oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair 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. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

5 books, Book lists

5 books about holidays from hell

5-books-200pixWe all love going on holiday, but what happens when things don’t go according to plan? In this selection of five novels — all reviewed on this site — characters find themselves caught up in trips that quickly descend into vacations from hell.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

‘A Woman of my Age’ by Nina BawdenA woman of my age (1967)

Middle-aged Elizabeth Jourdelay is feeling bereft after her children leave home. When she goes on holiday to Morocco with her husband Richard, she finds herself trapped with other English travellers — one of whom she suspects her husband may have had an affair with. As the couple, and their new-found “friends”, 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 her 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…

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

When Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, set off on a holiday to Puerto Rico by cruise ship little do they know how nightmarish their trip will become. It all begins with one act of simple kindness — Day loans a Canadian woman $10, whom they then struggle to shake off. Before long things go from bad to worse when Dr Slade falls ill and Day has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans, which transforms the couple’s exotic holiday into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

Losing-Gemma‘Losing Gemma’ by Katy Gardner (2002)

This a fast-paced psychological thriller about two English 20-something backpackers who journey to India on an “adventure of a lifetime” yet only one comes back alive — a fact that is made quite apparent at the start. The two female travellers, who have known each other since childhood but are polar opposites, are plunged into a strange land where strange things begin to happen to them. This puts untold stress on their friendship, which begins to quickly unravel. An intriguing undercurrent of menace builds to a frightening climax in which only one woman will survive…

Summer House with Swimming Pool‘Summer house with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch (2014)

This strange and compelling tale is a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It revolves around a doctor and his family who are invited to spend their summer in a holiday house with a famous actor and his friends. They all pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples and there’s even a fledgling romance between the actor’s son and the doctor’s teenage daughter. But eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions. The message seems to be, choose who you go on holiday with very, very carefully…

Goat-mountain‘Goat Mountain’ by David Vann (2013)

This story covers one family’s annual hunting trip in the wilds of Northern California that goes drastically wrong. It is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, eager to become a “man” by shooting his first buck. But within moments of arriving at their destination — the family’s remote 640-acre property — events take an unexpected and dramatic turn. This is a deeply disturbing and violent book that deals with important subjects, not least at what point should a child take responsibility for his actions. It ruminates on the sanctity of life, the sins of the father, the rules (or ethics) of hunting, human guilt and remorse, crime and punishment. It should appeal to those who like dark suspenseful tales about moral culpability.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another story that is based on a holiday from hell?

5 books, Book lists

5 of the best psychological thrillers

5-books-200pixI’ve always loved psychological thrillers or suspense novels. I read the first one when I was just 10 years old — Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown — and loved the fear and sense of foreboding it created so much that I must have read it a dozen times without ever getting tired of the high-stakes adventure story of a girl on the run from wicked men wearing dark hoods. I think my exploration of this genre as an adult is largely about me trying to recapture those feelings I first felt as a kid.

Of course, there’s a lot of mediocre books out there, so when Naomi from Consumed by Ink left a comment asking me to recommend some titles for those who don’t usually read the genre, it got me thinking: what are the best psychological thrillers I’ve read, the ones that are a cut above the rest?

And this is what I’ve come up with.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married American couple on holiday in Puerto Rico. When the wife loans a woman $10 they find they can’t shake her off.  But that’s the least of their concerns, because no sooner have they got rid of her, than the husband falls ill and his wife has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans for them all. The couple’s exotic holiday quickly descends into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

The-memory-game‘The Memory Game’ by Nicci French (1997)

This is the first book by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, but I could easily have chosen almost any from their extensive back catalogue, many of which are reviewed on this site. I read this one not long after it first came out (and before I began blogging, so can’t provide a link to a review) and was swept away by its tale of Jane Martello, who discovers a body buried in her garden. The remains are 25 years old and they belong to her childhood friend, Natalie. How did they get there? And how did Natalie meet her end? Jane starts seeing a therapist to try to recover her lost memories — and what she finds out will have you furiously turning the pages…

Talented-Mr-RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

A European adventure told from the perspective of a young American conman and murderer, this is a precisely plotted suspense novel of the finest order. But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders while on the run in Italy. It’s deftly written, features a cast of terrific characters and is full of hold-your-breath moments.

TenderwireTenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy (2007)

This is the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance. Eva, who narrates the story in a menacing kind of voice, is fragile and mentally unstable, so perhaps it’s no surprise she gets caught up in the collision of two worlds — the criminal underworld and the refined world of classical music. But when she buys the 17th century violin from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar, she’s naive to think that there will be no repercussions or payback. Does she get away with it? You’ll need to read this novel to find out.

Eight-months-on-ghazzah-streetEight months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)

Frances, a British expat living in Jeddah with her husband, suspects something strange is going on upstairs in the flat above hers, but cannot convince anyone else that anything is wrong. This is the premise behind Mantel’s brilliant and deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of insidiously creepy read that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you. Is Frances just paranoid, or are her fears well founded?

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another good psychological thriller?

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.