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
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own