The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles is the story of three young American travelers in post WWII North Africa. It is said that it "explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert". (Harper Perennials)
I really enjoyed this book after putting it off for soooo long. It was given to me as a gift and it took me about 4 years to pick it up and finally read it and I am glad that I did. This story was beautifully written and gave me a very real sense of the place, but also of the period in which it takes place. I had a very distinct impression of who these American expats were with their inevitable philosophical soul-searching, and bland indifference to the culture of the Arabs. I knew them and yet I did not for they barely knew themselves.
The story centers on Kit and Port Moresby and their tag-along friend, Tunner. Tunner is impressed with them and a bit in awe of them initially and is probably how he came to be travelling with them. They must have initially sensed his admiration, and let him come along in order to detract attention from themselves and their crumbling relationship, although the author never dicloses exactly how the two became three.
The theme of this novel could be emptiness; the emptiness they felt within themselves, the emptiness in their relationships to each other or the emptiness that they find in northern Africa while they're searching for exactly the opposite. They want to be fulfilled emotionally, culturally, and intellectually. Also, the emptiness of the expansive and desolate desert, which plays such an important part of this book, it's practically another character in the novel. Indeed, the theme of emptiness comes up frequently when searching discussion groups online.
But it's the symbolism of walls throughout the book which is very powerful for me. Whether they are the walls of a city, the walls or parapet by which Port escapes from the Arab men after the episode with Mahrnia, the walls that their society puts up around them and from which they are fleeing, the walls in his relationship with Kit, the walls that Kit puts up all around herself in order to deal with the unforgettable potential threats and tragedies that she feels are awaiting her at every turn, the wall of Eric Lyle who isn't able to be himself. The prison like walls of Belquassim's house for Kit and finally the walls that her are her madness in the end.
There is much to discuss in this novel. I had chosen it for my library reading group and then unfortuantely was not able to attend the discussion held about it. I was told that they had a lively discussion about it despite the fact that most of them did not enjoy the book. It's a shame they didn't enjoy it as much as I did. But at least it got them talking! Now I am looking forward to seeing the movie.