The Reading Room

The Sheltering Sky

Review of Paul Bowles classic debut novel…

In the list of great twentieth century debut novels The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1910-1999) must surely find its place amongst the very best. A novel quite unlike any I have read before; dark, tragic and deeply evocative of an age of travel and adventure long since passed.

Bowles was a man who immersed himself in the land and culture of North Africa, he wrote the book in 1948 as he travelled across Morocco and Algeria fuelled by hashish and the discovery of new paths and escapes from his homeland America and Europe’s intelligentsia. This desire of his to break free from the entrapment of modern society spurred him on to travel across the Algerian Sahara and those experiences inspired him to write with the clarity which makes this story so compelling.

The novel serves as the most bleak and telling warning of the notion of romantic travel. Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple whose marriage hangs by a lifeless, sexless thread travel across North Africa chasing a vision of adventure that doesn’t truly exist. Port believes he is a traveller and not a tourist but they seek out hotels and restaurants wherever they visit, no one place satisfies them for long enough. The inclusion of Tunner, a fellow American with an interest in Kit gives the novel an incredibly tense menage a trois, pushing the couple to question their marriage and the reality of their situation.

As Port battles with his feelings for his wife so his desire to get to evermore remote locations intensifies, in a bid to escape from Tunner he pushes his wife to join him in an unbearable bus drive deeper into the Sahara. Fever grips him and Bowles takes us along on a kaleidoscopic journey of hallucinations, dust ravaged towns, rancid food and cold sweats. It is Bowles telling us that we, the western world, cannot conquer everything with our lust for comfortable travel. The desert and its native inhabitants will chew up and spit out those who believe in their own pompous rights to survival and comfort. It is the travelogue from hell and the Moresby’s find themselves at the very heart of the Sahara’s waiting nightmare.

“A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky’s clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose”

Bowles has no time for sentiment, his landscapes convey both the natural beauty and the desperation which it brings, the sights, sounds and smells of the nomadic life are hauntingly vivid. Port’s slow, agonising journey towards death in the dry heat of a squalid town is gripping, bettered only by the irony of his wife who ventures further into the desert than he could have imagined. Her subsequent ordeal is difficult to read, Bowles eschews the happy ending in keeping with the rest of the story, he serves us a lesson, the point is hammered home.

 

 

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