The Sheltering Sky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Porter “Port” Moresby and his wife Katherine “Kit” Moresby are affluent Americans traveling in Northern Africa in the 1940s, in the years following World War II. They are “travelers” rather than “tourists,” the difference being that tourists have a destination in mind and a designated time to return home. As we see as the novel unfolds, the region of the Sahara Desert is a not a hospitable place for Americans to travel in; it’s hot and dusty, travel is uncomfortable and unreliable, hotel accommodations are substandard at best, and there’s nothing really to see or do in the Sahara once you’ve taken in the mystery and vastness of the desert, which you can do in one day or less. (All right, let’s go home now.) Why Port and Kit are putting themselves through such torture is never really explained, except that they seem to be trying to get away from something (themselves?) and, also, in choosing where to go, they are interested in parts of the world that haven’t been affected by the war.
Kit Moresby is attractive, which turns out to be her undoing. We’re never told anything about what Port looks like, except that he’s young, so I think it’s probably safe to assume that he’s nothing special in the looks department. They’ve invited along a friend, a man named Tunner, who, though he is handsome, is shallow and something of a nuisance at times. Port doesn’t especially like Tunner but instead tolerates him. Kit is unfaithful with Tunner for at least one night, for which she feels guilty. She wonders if she should confess her infidelity to Port.
In their travels through the cities and towns of the Sahara, Port and Kit encounter fellow travelers Eric Lyle (think Peter Lorre) and his loudmouth mother (think Florence Bates). Eric is cloying and supercilious, dominated by his boorish, petty mother. He asks Port for money and ends up stealing his passport (which can be exchanged for ready cash), causing no end of trouble. These are brilliant and immediately identifiable secondary characters.
After a continual moving about from place to place (with each new place worse than the one before), Port becomes ill with (we learn later) typhoid. There are no doctors to speak of and no hospitals, so he has only a bottle of pills that somebody gives him to help him with his illness. Kit stays by his side while he is sick but after he dies she goes off on her own, not even staying behind to see that he is buried properly. This is where the novel takes on a different aspect with Kit the dominant character.
After all Kit has been through (poor puss), she has a “breakdown” in the desert and doesn’t even seem to know where she is or what she is doing. She is picked up by some Arab men traveling in a caravan and becomes the sex slave of at least two of them. She believes she is in love with the younger of the two Arabs, Belqassim, and submits to him willingly on a daily basis (he “visits” her in the afternoons in the room where she is kept locked up). She becomes his “wife,” even though he already has several wives who are jealous of this odd American lady, whom they believe at first to be a man because that is what Belqassim wants them to believe.
The Sheltering Sky, written by Paul Bowles, was first published in 1947. It is a unique kind of twentieth century American novel, in that its principal characters are American but it doesn’t take place in America and doesn’t deal with the American way of life. It might just as easily have written by an Englishman or a person of any other nationality who knows the Sahara region of North Africa. I’ve read The Sheltering Sky two times in my life, the first time over twenty years ago, and found it just as compulsively readable the second time as the first. If you are a reader, you will love The Sheltering Sky. Of the thousands of books I’ve read in my life, it is one of my favorites and highly recommended.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp