Book Reviews
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The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles


I remember announcing to a once bookish friend that I intend to read this right after finishing the book that I was currently reading at that time. It must be Gilead, since it is the book that I wrote about prior to this. I then went to the bathroom and when I returned, he gave me his approval.

He said he likes the opening chapter, which is only two pages long. If I remember it right, it is something about waking up in a Northern African hotel room with the afternoon sun slanting through the window. I also like this first chapter, and aren’t first chapters important? The impressions the writer leaves on the reader can either make or break the commitment that the latter has in finishing the book.

I did finish the book, of course, but I would just like to point out that I selected this book mainly because there is a mesmerizing quality in the title. I know it’s set in Africa, what with the book cover of the Sahara. Not really my cup of tea, desert settings, I mean, but let’s give it a shot, I told myself.

The Rhapsody

This novel is about a man and wife who take on a rather whimsical journey through the sands of Sahara. Well, let’s make that three people because they are accompanied by a male friend whom they invited, thinking that he wouldn’t be up for a desert tour. The couple regretted that they are even friends with this man because yes, he is more than willing to go with them.

This is quite an unlikely story to tell. It strikes me as something strange: a couple trying to resolve marital issues do not decide to take a trip to the most arid and the most unforgiving of places unless they are, well, strange. Or if these people are just plain tired of the trivial routines of the New York City life.

The narrative is filled with vivid descriptions of sand, sand on the streets, sand swirling with the wind, sand in your clothes, in your hair, in every imaginable surface of your body, that I always had to fight the urge to reach for the tenth cotton buds to clean my ears, which I felt to have been filled with sand.

And the sky. Of course, with the title alone, it’s to be expected. But I never really thought of the sky as something that is so immense. During ordinary times, the sky is just there. At this time of the year, the sky is an erratic old hag who has the penchant to spit on you when your shirt is stained with sweat. It’s a canopy strewn with salt on more dreamy occasions. And so on. In the novel, the descriptions of the night sky in the Sahara are both peaceful and unsettling, especially if one is agoraphobic. Or claustrophobic. Or both.

The sky is that big. That’s a fact. It’s obvious. But it’s so big that it makes you feel that your existence is nothing. Does it have a limit? What is there beyond the sky? More sky? Another set of skies? Something else? Or nothing?

So I’ve ranted on and on about the sand and the sky. And what of the plot? As I’ve mentioned, man and wife decide to travel to North Africa. I can’t recall their names. Their marriage, instead of having it saved, unravels further, what with the nuisances of other characters, particularly the male friend, and their own random infidelities. Their estrangement widens further because of the man’s fascination for the desert and the wife’s abhorrence for it.

The marriage is not going to be saved with this tour after all. And they went their separate ways, because the man dies of typhoid and the wife becomes rather deranged and runs into the desert, where she fucks around with a group of caravan men. Actually, she is first raped, but she enjoys it anyway. Stockholm syndrome, anyone?

She travels with these men, the leader of the caravan is some sort of royalty in that part of the world, he takes her as an umpteenth wife, he locks her away inside a castle of adobe, he fucks her less due to business, I assume, she grows restless and plots her way to escape by conniving with the other wives and servants, she gains her freedom, or something like it, she is found by the male friend who was forever searching for her, they return to the city, the wife is really out of sorts, I think she wants to escape again, and I think she did.

3 star - liked itFinal Notes

I thought there would be more drama to unfold at that point when the man died. But the novel took on a rather steep turn, with all the running around in the desert and the promiscuity. I was like, is this still the same book? It’s probably why I have ambivalent feelings for it. I liked the first part, I relished the second part, and the third part?

Maybe because I hoped for the wife and the male friend to fuck around more than those repulsive caravan men? I remember that the male friend is a sort of alpha male, someone who would look good in the cover of a fashion magazine.

It’s a good book if we only use literary technique as the sole basis. I mean, Bowles is a brilliant writer. I guess I was more annoyed than surprised at the last third of the book. Riveting, yes. Or maybe I just didn’t get the whole point of it all.

And that is a shame because after I did a little research once I finished it, I found out that Police’s Synchronicity has a lot of references to this book. Like the part titles. Book One: Tea in the Sahara. And what else? Probably the whole album must be inspired from this book.

That, I must say, is a staggering achievement.



  1. It just goes to show you how books affect people differently.
    When I was in my youth the book changed my life or spoke
    to me like no other book ever did and I felt that I had to know the
    author. I spent 15 years in Tangier with Bowles. As years passed
    and I learned more about North Africa, each re read made me realize
    how little I understood details of the book before living there for over 20 yrs.
    Now that I am becoming older and I have experienced more in life the plot
    becomes even more credible. With Bowles one must read between the lines
    and pay attention to small details and of course knowing the N African culture
    in depth makes the book even better. Cherie Nutting


    • Wow, thanks for the insight. But I think one does not really need to know the culture where a book is drawn because knowing that yourself somehow defeats one purpose of writing, don’t you think? I would seriously think about rereading this when I’m older. Thanks! :)


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