The Gulf Between Us, By Geraldine Bedell

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The Independent Culture

Anyone picking up The Gulf Between Us as a scandalous banned book involving gay sex with an Arab sheikh: don't. As it turned out, the book was not necessarily forbidden from the Dubai Festival of Literature, as its author originally implied. It doesn't feature any gay sex (though quite a lot of straight sex is suggested, in the manner of a mid-raunch-level Mills & Boon). It is better than the sensationalist bonk-fest its publicity implied, and better than the feeble chick lit its punning title suggests. But Lady Chatterley's Lover it is not.

It is a sensitive and intelligent enquiry into prejudice, family, belief, loyalty and love in a very peculiar corner of the 21st century. The fictional Gulf state of Hawar – a glittering collision of traditional and modern – could represent Dubai, Bahrain, where Geraldine Bedell lived, or any number of countries in which the chador is now accessorised with Chanel. "Nothing about it made any real sense – its modern cities rearing up out of pitiless desert, its archaic hereditary dictatorships," says its narrator, Annie Lester. In this weird existence, her three teenaged sons must work out who they are, and dare to be.

Hawar is a very clever place to set a novel about thwarted love. The trials of young Matt, who spectacularly comes out of the closet at his brother's wedding, would not be out of place in Shakespearean tragedy; if Shakespeare had known about gay coffee bars and paparazzi. Bedell's treatment of a single mother trying to understand her sons' sexuality expertly finds a line between shrieky parent and patronising liberal. The narrator's father is a neat generational foil and a deftly-drawn individual, struggling with his infuriating "lack of entitlement". Readers looking for gay characters will not be disappointed (though they might also not be shocked by the twist). Above all, the debate about respect for religion and freedom of speech that cleverly plays across this novel is one that should be had, in as many formats as possible.