2008: 68. The Sheltering Sky

“He awoke, opened his eyes.  The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come.”

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

I had almost no idea what to expect from The Sheltering Sky.  The library copy I picked up had no blurb at all on the back, and I had heard nothing about it except that it was on the Modern Library top 100 novel list (and the copy I borrowed didn’t have the sand dunes on the cover, just a plain blue background).  My only clue was the vaguely Arabic font, which indicated deserts.  Which, of course, as this cover indicates, is what the book is somewhat about.  

The story concerns three Americans travelers who arrive in North Africa after the Second World War, intending to see the continent, particularly the desert.   The first section, in which the three (a husband and wife and a third), arrive, and snipe at each other, and lounge around made it seem like it was going to the kind of story about the kind of tiresome people who have too much money and too much time on their hands, and think that they are deeper and more philosophical than the rest of humanity (but are really more neurotic).  For example, in the first section the husband wanders out into the town and sleeps with an Arabian prostitute basically out of boredom, while the wife sleeps with the other man for the same reason, and then they (not knowing what the other has done) have terrific fights about the state of their marriage because they just don’t understand each other.  Etc.  So I was not terribly impressed with where the book seemed to be heading - the novelistic equivalent of a self indulgent art film.

And then the plot takes a radical twist and things start happening at great number, and where the book ends is so different from where it seemed to be going that it caught me completely off guard.  I don’t want to say more (the adultery described above is not really seriously treated in such a way that I would consider it a spoiler - this stuff is).  And while at first the shift in tone seemed disconcerting (and what happens to the wife is frankly a little hard to swallow in the suspension of disbelief area), upon reflection I appreciate it.  It seems to me that the novel is trying to show what happens when jaded Westerners think they can treat the desert like a playground (at the beginning they speak of North Africa as if they can treat it like Italy or France), and the price they pay for their carelessness.  And Bowles captures the grandeur and the squalor of that part of the world (he lived their for a large chunk of this life) and how terrible and wonderful it must be.  

So, worth reading, I think.

Date/Place Completed: 5/18/08

Categories: Fiction, Library Book, Modern Library, Book Resolutions

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017