BOOK REVIEW / In the deserts of the heart: Wendy Brandmark on a Lebanese novelist's determined exploration of the secret lives of Arab women - 'Women of Sand and Myrrh' - Hanan Al-Shayk Tr. Catherine Cobham: Quartet, 6.95 pounds

AT A CONCERT in the desert women dance with each other in a frenzy born out of the confinement of their lives. Suha is repelled and angered by the women's fantasy of freedom: 'Their emotions that night were out of keeping with their veils. They . . . knew that they were prisoners even in this hall because they couldn't leave it until their drivers or their husbands came to pick them up.'

The four women of this novel are trapped in this unnamed desert Arabic country, their lives circumscribed by a strict fundamentalist Muslim code. Suha, a cosmopolitan professional, has come to the desert to escape the war in Lebanon. Her husband has a job but she finds that women who dare to work are constantly intimidated. When out of boredom and frustration, she begins an affair with Nur, a rich Arabic woman, Suha realises she must leave the desert before her identity becomes as uncertain, as shifting, as the other 'women of sand'.

Tamr and Nur both grew up in the desert, but while Tamr has had to struggle to gain an education and start her own dress shop, Nur has had the life of a spoilt princess. Given her own house at the age of 13, she has expensive clothes, trips abroad and a sexual freedom few women in this Muslim country could dream of. Yet her husband controls her passport and she always fears that her wild life will be discovered. In a way she is more bound than Tamr. Tamr, who has had at least small victories over the men who oppress her, is gaining some control over her life. Nur knows that as she grows older she will lose her sexual power and there will be nothing to replace it.

For Suzanne the desert is an escape from her dull existence in Texas. Thrilled by the attention she receives from Arab men, she dreams of divorcing her husband and becoming a second wife to her lover. She knows that once she leaves the desert she will become once again an overweight housewife who watches soap operas and wonders why her husband doesn't notice her anymore. Hanan Al-Shaykh has made Suzanne almost too stereotypical, too much the victim. She may be the only one of the four to find a kind of freedom in this country but she is obsessed by her sexual fantasies. She cannot see how she is used by her lover, how the kindness and attention is often the mask of mockery.

The desert is the fifth character, its emptiness and quietude filled with the rubble and noise of builders. AlShaykh shows us a country which is tearing up its roots, replacing traditional markets and houses with supermarkets and American kitchens, embracing Western materialism yet refusing half its population elemental freedoms; a society whose taboos and impossibly strict laws have created a labyrinth of corruption and hypocrisy.

Hanan Al-Shaykh writes with quiet determination; the outrage, frustration and desperation of these women tempered by an austere, almost arid style which matches the desert terrain. She achieves a nice balance with the four characters: two of them outsiders, two natives; two of them independent, rational women, the other two dependent, disturbed and disturbing. Although these women have quite different backgrounds and personalities, their voices sound much the same. Only when they appear in each other's stories do we hear Suzanne's hysteria, Nur's importunity, Suha's disdain. Perhaps some nuances of tone and syntax are lost in translation, but it seems more likely that this is a distinctive narrative style. The evenness of tone and voice, and the four separate stories give the novel the quality of a medieval triptych or an oriental tapestry. Less a protest novel than a study of the landscape of bondage, these are not so much stories of women's triumph over their oppression, but more their adaptation to restrictions, their underground life.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?