The Sheltering Sky is a landmark of 20th-century literature, a novel of existential despair that examines the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness of the desert. Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream) gives masterful voice to this American classic. This fascinating story follows three American travelers, a married couple and their friend, as they find themselves adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II. Along the walkabout, their ignorance of the dangers that surround them peels back the veneer of their lives. The author’s life as an expatriate in the North African nation of Morocco informed his rendering of the desert, which itself is a cruel, unforgiving character in the novel. “Paul Bowles’ writing is so extraordinary, so special,” Ms. Connelly said. “The landscapes are magical, the characters are questioning so much – it’s haunting in a very beautiful way.”
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Because this is one of the novels released in Audible's *A-List Collection*, I'll begin with the perfect match-up of this novel to narrator, Jennifer Connelly. Flaw Less. With an hypnotic voice, Miss Connelly brings the voice of author Bowles alive. If you are familiar with the ex-pat author and composer, you might even hear his attitude in Connelly's reading. I've listened only to 3 books from the A-List Collection, but all have been solid pairings of novel and narrator. Connelly was sublime.
I was simply - seduced, from the introductory beat of exotic tribal drums. As the novel progressed, I did not like these nihilistic snoots, Kit and Port, so self-absorbed that they don't wait for night to fall--rather they wait for the *night to come to them*, but I was mesmerized by them. Tired of Paris, Rome, wishing to escape anywhere touched by the war (WWII), Kit and Port stuff their trunks and cross the Atlantic to the N. African desert. They sit on the terrace of a desert cafe where the "air has no movement", surrounded by Arabs in fezes in shades of red, they in their European clothes, "in the manner of people who had all the time in the world for everything." Kit finds a piece of rabbit fur in her rabbit soup after swallowing a spoonful, after devouring a bowl of noodles Port notices the floating bodies of weevils, they suffer illness (and worse)...I had no sympathy for these inhumane people, but I was fascinated -- to quote Bowles quoting Kafka..."From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back; that is the point that must be reached."
Kit and Port Moresby (MOREsby surely couldn't be coincidental), are not the antagonists of this story -- it is the Sahara, and the solitude that ignores station, caste, or status . As Bowles goes on to drive these two further into the desert the story becomes bizarre, to say the least, but these mysteries should remain until you discover them for yourself. A bit similar to Hemmingway's band of ex-pats in Paris from The Sun Also Rises; and there is no escaping the obvious...this is Existentialism, very reminiscent of Camus' The Stranger. A particular passage haunts me: an Arab tells the tale of 3 sisters and their quest to have tea in the Sahara on the highest dune (Sting wrote a song about the tale "Tea in the Sahara"), it was strangely exquisite and visual.
The aberrations, the atrocities, the perversions, are handled with a genius touch. No violence is described, even in the most brutal situations, but you know what went down and can feel the horror of the situations because of Bowles ability to communicate without spelling out the details. It was in these moments that I felt the most fascinated and connected to this haunting book. (It struck me as I began listening the second time around that Bowles has created a novel that has been intelligently streamlined, to where everything, every detail and every word, is a necessary part of a perfect whole.) I disliked it until I loved it. Sheltering Sky will not have wide appeal, I wouldn't suggest it to my book club without expecting to lose my turn at choosing, but for me personally, I'm obsessed. Recommending this book reminds me of recommending a Rothko exhibit...you either love it and appreciate the talent that can capture the subtleties of blue fading into black...or you hate it and think you're kid could do that. This novel goes on my favorite list - the short one, and I'm already listening again.
Paul Bowles masterpiece reminds me of some alternate, trippy, version of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, but instead we see the other side of the Mediterranean. Tangier and the deserts of North Africa take the place of the South of France. A different love triangle exposes different forms of loneliness, madness, love, and existential expats.
The thing I love about Bowles is he brings a composer's mind to writing. His novel isn't propelled forward by a strong plot (although it has plot) or attractive characters (none of the characters are very attractive), but the music of his language itself pushes and pulls, tugs and compels the reader page after page. It felt very much like I was floating limp and languid in Bowles prose as his hypnotic sentences washed over me and drifted me slowly toward the inevitable end.
Connelly captures the mood, the magic, the sadness and the tension of the book perfectly.
Most days, I don't feel a real need to read/listen to a book twice. But I might need to make an exception for 'The Sheltering Sky'.