enguin £7.99 (307pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Lulu in Marrakech, By Diane Johnson
Friday 13 March 2009
Diane Johnson, the essayist and screenwriter, is best known for her trio of sparkling Franco-American satires Le Divorce, Le Mariage and L'Affaire. In her latest novel, however, she abandons the romantic misalliances of the Left Bank for a spy story of the old school.
Set in the expat community of Morocco, Johnson's book places her eponymous heroine, a CIA operative, in the country's most exotic city. Lulu has been dispatched to Marrakesh to collect information about suspected anti-American radical Islamic groups, and under the guise of visiting her boyfriend – an upper-class English man named Ian Drumm – she sets up shop in his gated compound. Here the poolside fun begins as Lulu tries to befriend some "real" Moroccans, and ingratiate herself among a cast of laconic colonials and freeloading Brits.
As in previous novels, Johnson's comedy largely arises from the mismatch between her characters' cultural assumptions and the reality on the ground. Although Lulu's role as a secret-service flunky proves far from convincing – tiptoeing around bedrooms is as daring as she gets – she nevertheless starts to make sense of the city with the help of a series of Le Carré-style spooks and spivs. Just as East-West relations start to hot up, Lulu's affair with Ian begins to cool down.
This may not be Johnson's best book, but her writing is never less than worldly, intelligent and non-partisan.
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