When I told my niece I had become thoroughly engrossed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, she asked me if I had read her book Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. I hadn’t.
Meanwhile, I had started re-reading George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, so I’ll be ready when HBO does Season Three, and while there is no redeeming value, I sure enjoy the escape, and like my sister Sparkle, sometimes I forget it isn’t the real world, it’s not history, it’s FICTION. I enjoy every minute.
But now I am reading Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and from the opening pages – where the main character is living in Zambia – I have been totally engrossed.
Frances and her husband Andy move to Saudi Arabia. It’s 1985, Andy is going to build a Saudi ministry headquarters, but it might well been the late nineties, when we lived there. Her flight into Saudi Arabia whipped me back to those days, and to all the loud-mouthed drinkers who kept the rest of us awake.
Frances goes in with preconceptions, but also with a spirit of adventure, and is quickly stifled by the claustrophobic apartment, the limited social opportunities and the lack of free movement as a woman. The heat is oppressive, the clothing rules arbitrary and annoying, and Frances finds all the cockroaches good company during her long lonely days while her husband works.
Her situation was not mine. I lived on a compound, with bus routes that took women shopping every day, twice many days. We had a pool, and a small store, and a video rental kiosk. I had more options, and I probably had more fun. AdventureMan was good about taking me down to the souks at night; it was exotic and interesting. It was also, as Frances describes it, stultifying. It was oppressive. Sometimes the phone worked just fine. Sometimes your dial-up access to the internet functioned. Even on a compound, where some women did drive, walking on your own invited ogling and comments from non-Western men. Living in a country where your sponsor holds on to your passport, and where you need to ask permission to leave the country, and where laws are enforced sometimes, and sometimes not, and where women cannot drive but 12 year old boys have their own cars – it’s La La Land, it’s crazy-making.
Even though I had options and friends, Hilary Mantel captures the time alone. You spend a lot of time alone. In my case, I got used to it . . . we also had a lot of time on our own in Qatar and in Kuwait, where you are more free, where women can drive, but where you can only go to the malls and souks so many times; even when the heat isn’t enough to knock you over, there really just isn’t that much to do. You learn to amuse yourself, you develop a talent for creating, you learn to like your own company.
Then you get back to the USA and the availability of so many options makes you feel semi-autistic, bombarded by so much stimulation you quail and retreat.
I haven’t even gotten to the meat of the plot; I’m about a third of the way in, and I’m feeling hot and sticky and restless and she has totally taken me back to expat life in Saudi Arabia.