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Banks, Carla - 'Strangers'
Hardback: 400 pages (Jan. 2007) Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd ISBN: 0007192126

In April 2004, Roisin, a woman in her early thirties, literally bumps into pathologist Dr Joe Massey while running by a London canal. The two begin to see each other and, after a whirlwind romance, marry. Both are rootless types who want to see the world, but when Joe tells Roisin his application for a post in Canada has not been successful, the couple elect to go to Riyadh, where Joe has recently worked, and where Roisin can easily get a university job teaching English.

Sinister overtones have already been provided by the prologue, in which Joe inadvertently witnesses a public execution in his previous time in Riyadh. Why does he continue to be so upset by this event? Why return? When the newlyweds arrive in Saudi Arabia, Roisinís expectations of a contented coexistence with Joe are dashed: she barely sees him as he is always at work, and has a lonely time of it.

The claustrophobic nature of life in the "desert kingdom" is well-conveyed, but the first half of this book often reads like a political travelogue rather than a novel. Characters represent viewpoints rather than being people; for example, a (female) professor at the university provides Roisin with a logical set of arguments why women do not need to vote and why it is desirable to wear the hajib. One of Roisin's students represents the opposite view, largely via anonymous postings on a students' web forum. Yasmin, a pregnant teaching assistant, provides an excuse for various opinions about the desirability of wives/mothers also working: all old-fashioned debates for western readers, but relevant today in the Middle Eastern context. In other scenes, various views of the "ex-pat" lifestyle are expressed, teaching methods debated, and so on. We also see Saudi culture from the point of view of Damien, an ex-civil servant who runs an agency recruiting westerners for professional positions, and of Nazarian, a prominent businessman, his daughter (the aforementioned Yasmin) and son-in-law Majid, who is a police officer.

The book is an easy read, and it is interesting to learn about life in a culture and system so different from the west in what certainly seems to be an authentic manner. As a thriller, however, the book is less successful, as the mystery depends too much on Joe's increasing withdrawal from Roisin, and on other pieces of information that aren't provided to Roisin or the reader for various reasons. Joe is a particularly unconvincing, flat character. There are too many plot strands: the investigation of the death described in the prologue; the strange reappearance of Roisin's long-lost schoolfriend Amy; Yasmin's secret requests for Roisin to look for a missing maid; Roisin's struggles with her own adopted status; and Damien's additional attempts to probe both Majid's family troubles and the business dealings of his father-in-law Nazarian.

Events come to a head in a dual tragedy that causes Roisin to flee the country with many questions unanswered. In a final section back in London, the various components fall together into a resolution of sorts - again, with rather too many threads, including the old man who used to be Roisin's neighbour; a young mother who has moved into his recently vacated flat; a Newcastle connection; and a local police investigation into the drowning of a young woman - was Joe responsible?. Although most of these do turn out to be relevant (some rather too coincidentally to be believable), I felt they were too disparate to create a satisfactory whole. In the end, the story is less involving than the perceptive, atmospheric descriptions of issues and cultural attitudes peculiar to Saudi Arabia and to Islamic morality.

Maxine Clarke, England
May 2007

Maxine inhabits
Petrona.

last updated 4/05/2007 12:19