Lulu Sawyer is an American “human intelligence officer” on assignment in Marrakech to track whether someone with Western connections is cooperating with Islamists and sending money through charities to various terrorist organizations. Lulu’s arrival in this colorful, kaleidoscopic city also provides her with an opportunity to reconnect with Ian, her wealthy British lover. Perhaps seeing Ian will reignite in Lulu the flutter of fascination and give her a little respite from the gruesome realities that have haunted her since the Balkan crisis.
Seldom do things in life exceed expectations, so Lulu is just as surprised as anyone when she
is thrust into comprising circumstances and caught up in the machinations of various foreigners, both Western and Arabic.
The destruction of Ian’s factory building, leased to a manufacture of fertilizer, jumpstarts Lulu’s investigations, leading her to realize that perhaps her beloved Ian is not the innocent party as she first thought. The fire is a sudden catalyst
that increases the chatter and suspicion of late - and the certainty that something might happen, perhaps in the form of a terrorist attack.
In a world where people - especially women - hide in “baggy robes and veils,” Diane Johnson peppers her narrative with a group of boorish, mostly useless characters out of touch with themselves and each other in this foreign land. All of them eventually intrude into Lulu’s life,
including the gangly, hopeless British laureate poet Robin Crumley and his pregnant wife, Posy, “a sturdy girl with the English ankles,” whose greatest achievement is the study of arcane topics like water imagery in Moroccan poetry.
There’s also Gazi and Khaled Al-Sayad, a Western-educated Saudi couple proud of their ability to mingle and be accepted among Westerners as if there were nothing remotely odd about them; Marina Cotter and her effusive husband, complete with their decisive British upper-class tones and English sense of entitlement; and Tom Drill and his partner, Strand, who run a tea shop in the center of Marrakech. Then there’s Suma, the woman in the black chador whose
French-Algerian brother, Amid, may be mixed up in something illicit and is the current subject of surveillance.
These people are mired in a retro form of political correctness. Lulu acts as a political and social cipher while she spends her days wandering the back alleys of the souk, sometimes with Posy, while in the evening attending exotic dinner parties and luncheons.
Among the ex-pats and foreigners, Lulu begins to understand even more about the limitations of her situation
- a woman alone, caught between the demands of her mission and her ever-fracturing intimacies with Ian.
Part of Lulu’s essential dilemma is that she’s not prepared to forget her personal history with Ian, even as she ends up stupefied by her own deficient powers of observation and the power of her hopes to drown out common sense. Subplots involving infidelity and hints of treachery circle around the main theme of love’s misunderstandings thriving on stolen moments, which in turn shape the inevitable collusion of unforeseen events. The book starts out strong, the exotic sights, sounds and smells of Marrakesh - and Lulu’s reaction to
them - a veritable feast for the senses. But you can’t take anything that transpires in the story remotely seriously.
As a field agent, Lulu has to be analyst enough to know what to report in the first place, what to take seriously and also what to fear. The spy sections in particular come across as limp and uninspiring.
The social realities of Arabic women, their relationships with their husbands, and their attitudes to sex prove to be the real meat behind this uneven, silly and rather monotonous exercise in cross-cultural relations and romantic ambivalence.