13 September 2015

The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

The Sand Men
Christopher Fowler
Solaris, 2015
PB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

It's safe to say The Sand Men book won't end up being recommended by the Dubai Tourist Board. It is a work of fiction with at its heart an (obviously) fantastical plot device which no-one is going to confuse with reality.

No offence there then. But in its more mundane aspects it is implicitly scathing about the treatment of migrant workers, the double standards of a state prepared to look the other way from the antics of expat Westerners (until some line is crossed) and the environmental hubris of building an artificial ski slope in the burning desert. Above all, it paints a deeply depressing picture of life among those well-paid expat engineers, architects and managers and their wives. (The spouses are generally wives: a deeply conservative culture seems to obtain where it's the men who are employed on the construction projects while wives endure an almost Colonial style of life in the walled compound - generally bored out of their minds and skewered by that double standard I mentioned above). So, if you knew you disliked the whole idea of Dubai but weren't quite sure why, this book might sharpen up your views. 

In other words, while this is basically a thriller, Fowler is also engaging with the society he depicts, and a very peculiar one it is.

Lea, Cara and Roy are newcomers to Dubai, innocents stepping off the plane into a new world. For Roy, his position on the luxurious Dream World resort project is the last chance, after he's been out of work for months, of making it as an architect. Dream World is behind schedule and must catch up. or the mysterious Chinese/ Russian backers of the project will not be pleased. For daughter Cara, the move is an unwelcome wrench from her London school and friends - yet possibly an opportunity to grow up, live a bit, and widen her horizons. For Lea, a journalist who supported the family though lean times, it's pretty much a prison sentence - more of less confined to the company compound and constrained, as a wife, by a set of conventions right out of the 50s - the 1850s, that is: Fowler describes the way of life you might get crossing Stepford with a hill station under the Raj ("...as if she had been stationed in some doomed and distant fort owned by the East India Company...")

Most of the story indeed focuses on Lea (after a gruesome introductory scene in which an Indian engineer dies horribly) with a few episodes from Cara's or Roy's point of view. We see Lea's optimism that she might find some local role writing for a magazine fade (investigative journalism is not encouraged, what's wanted are pieces on the joys of water skiing or shopping) to be replaced by a growing paranoia and a quest to discover why there are so many deaths and disappearances among the expats and their families. Meanwhile Cara makes those new friends ("Cara was unsure whether Norah meant good-sick or bad-sick") and Roy works longer and longer shifts, rising in Dream World Group and changing, demanding that Lea fulfil that alien wifely role ("The women around here are throwbacks. it's as if feminism never happened. And I think the men all secretly like it that way...")

The family seems to be fracturing.  Do they even need Lea any longer? Nominally a housewife she doesn't even have much to do at home as there is a frighteningly efficient and apparently compulsory maid to take care of things (the maids are rumoured to be spies for Dream World Group). Just what is her role? What will she do? Lea tries to reach out and make friends, but only seems to get on with those already marked down as trouble-makers. As events in the compound - and at Dream World - begin to go awry, Lea sets out to discover what's behind them. Is it just normal slapdash, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, or is there more going on? And in either case, who can she trust?

Replete with references to the Emerald City of Oz ("look behind the curtain") and to Kubla Khan's Xanada and introduced with a quote from JG Ballard (who else?) this is an excellent story, contrasting the gaudy neon excess of the hotels, bars and shopping malls with the timeless darkness of the desert - which was there first, and will be there after:

"...Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/
The lone and level sands stretch far away." (PB Shelley, Ozymandias).

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