Paranoia is an unknown commodity for a gregarious, world-traveled woman. When Frances Shore's husband is posted to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after their time in Africa, the couple has no idea of the cultural adjustments that await them.
Working for a private construction company, Andrew Shore is provided with living quarters, a daily stipend and a set of rules unlike any in his and Frances' experience. In Saudi Arabia in 1984, the Europeans make a useful contribution to the infrastructure of a country with a surplus of oil and wealth. Happy to oblige for such spectacular remuneration, the men are not nearly as constricted as the few wives who accompany their husbands.
Before the journey, Frances educates herself about the new country where she will reside, intelligent enough to understand the complex cultural and religious differences of the new posting. What she isn't prepared for is the emotional toll of living in a repressed society, patrolled by vigilant religious police and the watchful, mocking eyes that follow her everywhere.
Their apartment complex is surrounded by walls that block any view of the outside world; nor can women drive, but must be driven everywhere by a male. At the mercy of such restrictions, Fran draws inward, conscious of those who live in the building but are never seen, watching and listening. Thus begins an assault on Fran's senses, a hyper-vigilant state which finally convinces her that something sinister is going on in the empty apartment above theirs: "First unease and then fear become her habitual state of mind."
Mantel has fashioned a psychological thriller that takes root on Frances's first day on Ghazzah Street. Surrounded by oppressive silence and mysterious comings and goings, Frances Shore is more than a victim of her own fears and delusions, a reality that time and tragedy will bear out. Unfortunately no one wants to listen, fearful for their own safety, maintaining a delicate balance in a host country intolerant of Western arrogance and contemptuous of Western values. As the pressure builds, even Andrew Shore is forced to admit that not everything is as it seems. The Shores have one last hurdle: no one leaves the Kingdom without permission.