This is a reread, too, but certainly not a comfort read. I wanted to see if Hilary Mantel’s 1988 novel is as sinister as I remembered – and it is. When cartographer Frances goes to Saudi Arabia to join her husband who is a surveyor on a building project, she doesn’t know what she is getting into. Mantel – who herself spent four years there with her husband – brilliantly describes the sights and smells and the noise of the city and the increasing disorientation that Frances feels. The Saudi women seem to her to be virtual prisoners – but then so is she. She is not permitted to work, or drive, rarely able to go out without her husband and confined to a dreary social scene of mostly appalling ex-pats. She becomes friends with a Pakistani woman in the next flat, but the cultural gap between them seems unbridgeable, her Muslim friend’s view of the West unrecognisable. They are often at cross purposes.
Frances begins to suspect that something is going on in the flat above, which is supposed to be empty. There is a rumour that an adulterous couple are meeting there – and this in a society where a woman can be stoned for adultery. Is Frances perhaps imagining things? Slowly, slowly an atmosphere of creeping claustrophobia and fear develops . . .
This is a book which, if anything, is even more resonant in its depiction of the gulf between East and West than when it was written, and it is deeply unsettling. This cover gives a misleading impression of the book, which is much darker and broader in its scope than this rather trivialising image suggests.