Book #97-The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Three Americans travel to the Sahara following WWII’s end in search of answers to questions they’ve yet to ask.  Bowles paints no pretty picture here and reveals the brutal realities of desert life.  Typhoid is on the rise, children are hungry, infanticide is uncovered and help is not at the ready.

A sense of place is successfully illustrated through very well written descriptives and characters are well developed.  What didn’t sit well was the female perspective.  While acknowledging it was written over 50 years ago, I found it hard to believe a woman would abandon a dying husband and roam about in an unknown land.  Even more appalling was the woman clinging to her rapist and accepting he’d share her with his friend.

Port Moresby, a nonproductive writer, plans the trip to North Africa with his wife and friend.  There are hints of a troubled marriage and that the trip was meant to be a means to resolve some unexplained conflicts.  Port seems more inclined to reaching metaphysical bliss than his traveling companions and comforts himself by visiting prostitutes.  Perhaps his realization that he and his wife are intellectually incompatible is the impetus for such licentious behavior, but it is not a good indication for the future of his marriage.  I suppose it’s hard to have disdain for an ailing man which is why I couldn’t wholly despise Port.

Mrs. Katherine Moresby, affectionately known as Kit, prone to histrionics seemed more concerned with her makeup than her husband’s whereabouts.  When things fall apart and hysterics are in order,  she calmly walks away without looking back.  Too much drama for my taste; this is not a woman I’d want to travel with.

A photographer, Mrs. Lyle is traveling with her grifter son, Eric and crosses paths with the American trio.  A woman who does not ask, but rather tells others what they will do for her, she was nonetheless the most colorful character to be found in The Sheltering Sky.  She harangues her son mercilessly to the dismay of others, but his unaffected manner encourages her to continue the browbeating without pause.  This woman made me laugh out loud in an otherwise gloomy tale.

Quotes:

Men were looking at her, but with neither sympathy or antipathy.  Nor even with curiosity, she thought.  They had the absorbed and vacant expression of the man who looks into the handkerchief after blowing his nose.

Illness reduces man to his basic state:  a cloaca in which the chemical processes continue.  The meaningless hegemony of the involuntary.  

The person who frantically has been counting the seconds on his way to catch a train, and arrives panting just as it disappears, knowing the next one is not due for many hours, feels something of the same sudden surfeit of time, the momentary sensation of drowning in an element become too rich and too plentiful to be consumed, and thereby made meaningless, nonexistent.  

Mr. Bowles was not only a prolific writer of books, but of music as well.  Reading by age three and writing by age four gave this apparent prodigy an early start, but may have lead to social awkwardness.  With this in mind, I’d approach in a surefooted manner and request he join me for a meal.  Perhaps I’d get him to play some of his pieces and get him to share tales of his well traveled life over a small glass of Pernod.

My rating for The Sheltering Sky is an 8 out of 10.

To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

Please share your own reviews or  comments by using the link below.

Next up, James M. Cain’s The Postman Alway Rings Twice…

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