There are times when I feel rather like an obnoxious tourist in the land of literature, slowly learning the ways of the traveller.
Over the past year (and a half!) I’ve discovered books I wouldn’t previously have considered reading; books by authors I hadn’t heard of this time two years ago. I’ve revisited familiar stories, still warm with memories of my childhood. I’ve found new favourites that sit comfortably at the very core of my being, curled up like contented cats…
For me, reading has become an adventure. I never really know what’s going to happen next. It’s actually quite thrilling.
I’m completely aware that I’m not exactly doing this whole “life” thing terribly well. But reading these books, writing these words, makes me feel as if I might just be doing something right.
The end of the 1940s marks another milestone in my bookish safari. My travels, however, are nowhere near over yet.
What does all this have to do with this week’s review? Plenty. The Sheltering Sky is a novel about travel, adventure and the freedom you feel when you leave things behind.
The Sheltering Sky
by Paul Bowles
Published in 1949
Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is an oddly beautiful, yet deeply strange novel. Much like a dream, once it’s over, you sit up, rub your eyes – and ask yourself what on earth you’ve just experienced.
The Sheltering Sky has moments of such intoxicating loveliness. The novel’s beguiling landscapes will call out to you, beckoning you closer. But the moment you finish reading, the dream crumbles apart, and the novel’s flaws become painfully obvious.
Set in the majestic Sahara after the Second World War, The Sheltering Sky introduces us to Port and Kit Moresby, a couple from New York. Eager to escape the stuffiness of New York society, and desperate to distract himself from the reality of his crumbling marriage, Port is posessed by a manic determination to visit the world’s most distant, unwelcoming places. Kit, meanwhile, is too timid to raise her voice in objection to Port’s destructive wanderlust.
But in the sweltering heat of the Sahara, Port and Kit’s relationship only grows colder. With every tiny town they leave in their wake, the couple move further away from the world they know, into an alien land that’s just as threatening as it is beautiful. The Sahara could bring Kit and Port back together – or drive them apart forever.
The Sheltering Sky begins slowly, with no sense of urgency or destination. Eventually, I fell into step with Bowles’ awkward rhythm. This bizarre, trying novel had me enthralled. Just when I thought I had it tamed, with one swift twist, the novel slipped from my grasp. The Sheltering Sky keeps you blindfolded at all times. You never really know where Bowles is going to take you until you’re actually there.
Bowles does a remarkable job of building atmosphere. As Port and Kit move further into Africa, their food becomes increasingly unpalatable, their bedding is infested with bugs. This constant sense of discomfort, coupled with the soaring uneasiness between Port and Kit creates a awkward tension that’s almost unbearable.
The further from home Kit and Port travel, the more they have to leave behind. Luggage is discarded, shoes are left in the sand, Kit’s clothes and her handbag, filled with expensive makeup, become impractical in the desert. The theft of Port’s passport is especially devastating; it’s as if an essential part of Port disappears along with it. The desert takes so much. The more they relinquish, the more tenuous their grip upon their own identity becomes. Set adrift from their belongings, their culture, nothingness beckons.
There’s a definite streak of existentialism all the way through The Sheltering Sky. The title itself ties into this theme, the sky serving as a recurring metaphor for protection from the unknown. Here is where it all begins:
“‘You know,’ said Port, and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely to do after a long pause in an utterly silent spot, ‘the sky here’s very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind.’
Kit shuddered slightly as she said, ‘From what’s behind?’
‘But what is behind?’ Her voice was very small.
‘Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night.'” (p. 99)
The Sheltering Sky gave me so much to think about. I’m still turning this novel over and over again in my thoughts, examining it from every possible angle. But while I found The Sheltering Sky profoundly interesting, I have to acknowledge that it’s nowhere near perfect.
Reading this atmospheric, odd little novel is like a dream. And, like any dream, The Sheltering Sky makes perfect sense when you’re right at the very heart of it. But once you wake up, that’s when logic begins to seep in through the cracks. As soon as you stop to analyse it in any kind of detail, The Sheltering Sky begins to fall apart.
The Sheltering Sky is riddled with flaws and oversights, the most devastating of which is Bowles’ two main characters, Kit and Port. We know they’re married, but not how they’ve come to be sleeping in separate beds. Bowles tells us that the pair are “diametrically opposed” to each other, which begs the question…what could they have ever possibly seen in each other? There’s barely a hint of attraction remaining between them. Bowles offers us not even the slightest hint of an explanation. I craved just a little more insight, some strand of humanity that could connect me to these cold, distant characters. Bowles gave me nothing. For a novel set in the desert, The Sheltering Sky is astonishingly lacking in warmth.
And, for that matter, in a completely serious novel, why would anyone purposefully give their character the name Port Moresby, of all things?
The awkward second half of The Sheltering Sky felt like an enormous disappointment. The more I think about this novel, the less comfortable the novel’s conclusion seemed. There’s something about this The Sheltering Sky that just seemed profoundly wrong to me. Even offensive. Without giving away details of the plot, I can say no more.
Regardless of its flaws, I genuinely admire The Sheltering Sky. It has a prickly kind of beauty that I find so appealing. It’s so atmospheric, so thematically intense. But a novel – a good novel – needs more than this.
As a reader, I crave well-crafted characters, some kind of structure, a rhythm. The Sheltering Sky has only the vaguest hints of these essential elements. In total honesty, it simply doesn’t work as a novel.
The Sheltering Sky is as strange and enticing as a mirage in the distance. But like a mirage, it’s somewhat lacking in substance.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
If you like big, bizarre ideas, yes. But if you’re into characters you can get a feel for, and a compelling story…then perhaps this isn’t for you.
In a word: