Sayeed is a simple man. Having moved from his village to find work in the city several years before, he now has a job as a porter and eeks out a reasonable living. When he goes back to his old village home for a few days, he is annoyed to find out his brother has tried to find a wife for him. He is happy alone, and his earnings will not support a wife back in the city. But slowly, he comes to terms with the idea, especially once he has met his wife to be, Latifa, who is a beautiful widow with a little girl. However, Latifa finds it hard to come to terms with living in poverty in the city. Will she become acclimatized? Or is Sayeed destined to be alone for the rest of his life?
This is a book that I picked up very cheaply in a sale; I have never heard of the author before, but the story sounded interesting, and I have enjoyed Middle Eastern literature in the past, so I thought it was worth a go. I found out later that the book was self-published, but obviously attracted enough attention to be picked up by a reputable publisher - there is hope for us all after all! Having read the book, I think it is easy to see why it was snapped up - this is a simply written book, but one that will stick in the mind afterwards.
Sayeed is portrayed as a very gentle man with few hopes in life, other than he has enough money to exist without having to become a burden on anyone else. And he is managing to live out these hopes, happy to see his brother happily married to two wives without envy. When he discovers he is about to get married, he does see the advantages, although he is worried that he will not have enough money to offer his new family a good life. And although he does find a way around this, it brings changes into his life for which he really wasn't ready. I enjoyed reading about Sayeed; there is something very appealing about him, despite his lack of drive. Towards the end of the book though, just when his life begins to get really interesting, the writer slightly changes tack and brings in Latifah as the central character to the story. This isn't totally a bad thing, but I did miss reading about Sayeed and his impressions of what was going on around him.
It is quite easy to feel sympathy for Latifa; not because she has married a bad man, because she hasn't, but because she is forced, as a widow, to accept a man who can't really afford to support her. Her first impressions of the city, where Sayeed has a self-built hut in a shanty town, are not good, and nothing that happens afterwards persuades her otherwise. So distraught is she by her surroundings, that she has what I can only describe as a breakdown - she hides away in the hut, refusing to eat or drink or see anyone. The author describes this very simply, with just a few words, but it is very effective nonetheless and I was really able to feel her pain.
The book is set in a desert country which is not named, although as the writer lived in Saudi Arabia for some time, that is quite possibly the country he is talking about. However, it really isn't important; in fact, it is a good thing for the book, because, as a reader, I had no preconceived ideas of what the country was like. It is clearly a country of divides - the poor are poor and the rich are very rich. Many of the rich are portrayed as being foreigners - in fact, few locals can afford to buy or even rent apartments in the city and so are forced to live in shanty towns. This reminded me of living in China - foreigners were resented because they could generally afford to live very well - and so I was very much able to identify with the story. Religion also plays an important part - the local religion is Islam - without becoming an 'issue'.
The book is very simply written. The sentences are short and to the point; the descriptions are nevertheless vivid though and I found myself easily visualizing what was being described. In some ways, it is almost as if a foreigner wrote the book - I know the author now lives in this country, but I don't know how long for, so maybe this is his natural language - whatever, it seems completely right for the book. At no point is it a struggle to read though - it is just very simple.
This simplicity follows through to the story, which may, of course, put some people off. The first two thirds of the book are largely about Sayeed's job and his trip to the village. Nothing remotely exciting happens, so for fans of action, this is probably not suitable. However, when things do pick up, they do so at full pace, particularly the last two chapters. I felt that the change in pace was a little too much - the ending felt rushed for me and was totally out of sorts with the rest of the book. It isn't a bad ending, but I did feel it could have been drawn out a bit more. I was slightly disappointed with the ending, but more because the characters didn't get what I felt they deserved, rather than anything that the author had done wrong.
I really enjoyed this book and am delighted to find out that it has a sequel - An Eye for an Eye - that I will certainly be looking out for. It is a really easy, gentle read that I managed to finish in a couple of days. The initial lack of storyline is made up for by the relaxed feeling that it left me. I've dropped a star for the slightly disappointing ending, but I still think it is worth looking out for.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.49. Published by Pheonix, it has 224 pages. ISBN-10: 0753812533
Set in a closed desert kingdom in our own times, it tells how Sayeed, a good but unexceptional man, finds love with a woman who would have been beyond his reach had not poverty and widowhood brought her low. The scene is set with unpretending tenderness: the hospital where Sayeed works, the kindness of his friends, the struggle to make a decent home for his new wife Latifa and her child, the bustle of his brother's home, the simple wedding. Heat, dirt and squalor are the backdrop to the tragedy, Latifa, confused and far from home, the terrified victim. Petty jealousy, sexual desire and religious fervour combine to bring her down and to leave the reader stunned. Mirage emerged from 1999's Booker judging as the unexpected favourite of the chairman, Gerald Kaufman, and other judges, just missing the final shortlist. It was later chosen by two of the judges, Boyd Tonkin and Shena Mackay as one of their books of that year. What made this championing of a first novel all the more surprising was the fact that it had been published by the author himself.