The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles)

Sometimes when you’re browsing through a bookshop (yes they do still exist) you buy a book on impulse. It’s usually a mistake, but sometimes it’s a decent read. On very rare occasions it is a magical moment. I am happy to say that I rarely read what are thought of as classic literature. I tend to find that they concentrate on the quality of writing over plot and pace. They can spend way too much time on detail, and they usually bore me. Perhaps this is a generalisation, there it is. However, there is always an exception, and while I was researching a story of my own I found The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. It promised some good descriptions of desert environments and it was only $10.

I’ve only ever read it once, and it was a tough read. The story is about Kit and Port Moresby, a married couple from America who are on a trip in North Africa after World War II. Their marriage is falling apart, but they are here to try and rekindle things. They embark on a journey into the Sahara Desert from Oran in Algeria.

I’m not going to get too much into the details of the story, which was instantly but gently compelling. I didn’t really like any of the characters. Kit and Port are immature and impulsive, each tempted into infidelity, Tunner, their friend, is a sleazy opportunist, and the Lyles are dishonest and obnoxious. However, my dislike of them mattered less as the book progressed because this is a fraught story, a story that hints at what is to come, a story that the reader must finish. I would almost say that it’s verging on traumatic to read at times.

As they go deeper into the desert, the Sahara becomes a major protagonist. It is hot, dusty, the hotels are grubby, full of fleas. The food is bad. And there is a typhoid epidemic. Kit and Port are held by the Foreign Legion as Port has lost his passport and they commander does not believe that they are married. This is the last straw as Port lies in a state of delirium and Kit is lost in a strange place.

I must be honest here. I kept thinking that I didn’t care about these people and put the book down numerous times, but I always went back. This is the quality of the book. Even if you are finding it difficult, it draws you back, insists that you read it, compels you to.

Kit eventually loses the plot and runs. She ends up in Mali at one point. I won’t spoil the ending for anybody who hasn’t read this book but, on reflection, it is the only possible ending for this book – the only ending that could maintain the integrity of the story.

Now, back to the fact that I have only read this book once. It isn’t my favourite book by a long way, and I didn’t enjoy it, but I won’t ever have to read it again because the story is burned into my brain. That is how good it is. I could tell you in huge detail about the story. And for that reason The Sheltering Sky will haunt me forever. But I’m happy about that. Such good stories should not be forgotten. It’s a masterpiece.

 

About George Fripley
I am a writer who enjoys writing humour, satire, poetry and sometimes a bit of philosophy. I live in Perth, Western Australia and occasionally get a poem or article published. It's all good fun! I have two books available for unwary readers, Grudges, Rumours and Drama Queens- The Civil Servant's Manual (This contains all that anybody could ever want to know about why government runs so slowly) and More Gravy Please! - the Politician's Handbook. (available through Amazon)

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