I have now in the last few weeks read a novel by a British author that takes place in a North African colony, an Egyptian novel that takes place during British colonial rule, and now an American novel that takes place in French North Africa in the 1940s.
There’s not really a consistent narrative thread or theme going along through all these, but some patterns have developed. For one, in each novel, there’s a Western presence seen in each novel as a vulgar/profane inhabitant of the area of the setting. For the British novel, it’s the Germans. For the Egyptian novel, it’s the Australians. And for the American novel, it’s the French.
The British and the American novel are also both self-critical of their very presence in this part of the world.
In this novel, we have a love triangle among three American travelers in various North African cities (in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia). These travelers are less the colonial presence in say the William Boyd novel and are more so like a Hemingway trio. There’s peril in the landscape to be sure, but the personal failures of each of the people involved is much more likely to create danger.
Kit and Port are married and have brought Tunner along with them. Tunner has eyes for Kit, Kit has eyes for getting away from Port, and Port is a little oblivious to everything.
There’s some disturbing scenes in some parts of this novel, but because it was written in the 1940s, it’s subtle, and almost worse because of it.
Here’s a great description, but mostly, this is a beautiful and cutting novel….a real novel’s novel:
“The novelty of the caricature was wearing off. Port was beginning to feel smothered sitting there between them; their obsessions depressed him. Mrs. Lyle was even more imaginary or real, to recount; her entire conversation consisted of descriptions in detail of the persecutions to which she believed she had been subjected, and of word-by-word accounts of the bitter quarrels in which she had been engaged with those who harassed her. As she spoke, her character took shape before him, although already he was far less inclined to be interested in it. Her life had been devoid of personal contacts, and she needed them. Thus she manufactured them as best she could; each fight was an abortive attempt at establishing some kind of human relationship.”