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.