The sky turned to black
Would he ever come back?
They would climb a high dune
They would pray to the moon
But he'd never return
So the sisters would burn
As their eyes searched the land
With their cups full of sand
Tea in the Sahara with you
Tea in the Sahara with you
--"Tea in the Sahara," The Police
The Sheltering Sky is a novel about strange deserts both real and psychological. In it, a trio of well-to-do but well-traveled Americans, Kit and Port Moresby and their friend George Tunner, take an extended trip to North Africa, which proves to be stranger and more dangerous than they had anticipated. The book is split into three parts: First, a sort of dismal travelogue that follows Port and Kit's failing marriage and Tunner's unwelcome advances on Kit as the three Americans explore the towns of what is probably northern Morocco. The second deals with the married couple, who, tired of Tunner, have sent him on ahead of them, and Port's sudden illness as they travel further south and deeper into the desert.
All this is well and good, and at times can be very beautiful--the authors of the Times 100 Books List point out that this book proves you can write affectively about the desert without being cloyingly poetic--but can also be very tedious. Bowles never sufficiently explains for my taste why the Moresbys decide to spend weeks in North Africa, for example. The dialogue never approaches real, and Bowles has an annoying habit of telling rather than showing, delving into long descriptions of the nuanced relationships between the three figures without real anecdotal evidence. Some of the psychological stuff is fascinating, but it's overused.
It's the third and final section that really stands out, though--and here I shall inject a major SPOILER WARNING--when Port dies ignominiously in a French military camp. Kit, horrified and heartbroken, walks off into the desert until she is discovered by a native named Belqassim who dresses her as a man and takes her as his secret consort, which continues for weeks. Because Belqassim and Kit do not share a common language, this third part is told for the most part without dialogue, and allows the characters to seem more real. The depiction of Kit in the desert, mad and mute, is both terrifying and beautiful, and stands in stark contrast to the well-mannered and somewhat prissy American of the first two sections. In many ways, Kit reminds me of the character of Almasy in The English Patient, who goes to the desert in order to lose himself but finds he cannot. This concept is echoed in the comments of a nurse who ultimately helps Kit return to civilization, referring to Kit's lost luggage: "It's funny... The desert's a big place, but nothing really ever gets lost there." I recommend this book, if only for the final section, and because it will give you a new perspective on that Police song.