When Frances Shore joins her engineer husband in Jeddah, she is warned not to ask questions. But bored, she begins to speculate about her neighbors and the empty flat above her. At first she believes the flat is being used as a lover's tryst - then she suspects something more sinister.
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Vintage Mantel, ahead of its time
Hilary Mantel is one of my favorite authors and this happens to be one my favorite works by her (it came along way before Wolf Hall). I first read it in print; like many of Mantel's works, this novel can be enjoyed from different angles so I always wanted to read it again...and ended up listening to it instead. The recorded version is excellent....and just as good as the print version. Personally, I got more out of the recorded version; this may be because the subtle changes in inflection by the narrator made certain important differences among the characters even more evident.
This is the story of English expatriate workers....the wife and narrator goes to Saudi Arabia to join her husband who is there on assignment. When the narrator arrives, she is an idealistic, young English working woman who is hoping to learn Arabic and get to know the culture. Her experience turns out to be rather different...and not precisely because of the reasons that we can all guess. There are a lot of undercurrents in this book, about closed cultures, chauvinism, cultural differences within cultures and the dangers of trying to help others when situations are not fully understood....
I particularly enjoyed the scenes when the narrators visits her neighbors and the conversations that ensue among the narrator and her neighbors. And we cannot forget the thriller aspect of this book...which is central to it. But one cannot say much about it without taking away from the mystery going on in the building where the narrator lives.
The men and women around the author keep on thinking her unbalanced because of particular events she is reporting to them which they do not want to see...Mantel makes the character's frustration palpable.
Don't miss this great read. It is no easy reading but it is certainly worthwhile and very much ahead of its time.
Perfect for listening
I knew Hilary Mantel from the Cromwell books (Wolf Hall may be the best writing I have ever read), so wanted to know more of her work. I recognize the autobiographical basis for this book, and found it very interesting -- well written, but the protagonist was so annoying in her naivete (real or pretended - couldn't tell) that she got on my nerves. But it was wonderful to have the audio version, because of the accents. I was even intrigued by the contrast between the protagonist's rather flat and un-nuanced descriptions of her surroundings and the (very stereotypical) people she meets and the delicate flavor and nuance that is supplied by the audio narrator's inflections. Don't think I would have liked this much if I read the print version, but enjoyed the audio very much.
Stupid question -- one doesn't rewrite a good writer's work. I had trouble determining the point of view being expressed: is the protagonist that dumb, or just playing dumb? -- she was a cartographer, has traveled the world, and in this setting she just sits around like a lump? -- are we meant to be seeing a bovine anger at being in Saudi or a woman who is suffering from serious depression from some other cause?. If the ending had been different (the mysterious upstairs turns out to be just a place for illicit sexual trysts), that might have cast a different light on the protagonist's previous process of deduction. But as it stands, this setting just seems like a very interesting place observed by a not very insightful visitor. Maybe this is the standard 'unreliable narrator' scheme, but this narrator (in the book, not the audio reader) reminded me of what my mother used to say when I crossed the room in front of the TV she was watching: 'you make a better door than a window.'
- P. Tracy