The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. The narrative has a somewhat fractured feel, reflecting the emotional state of its main protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple of the like found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, particularly Tender is the Night.

The Moresbys are unmoored, both physically and emotionally, travelling south through North Africa with little purpose or ultimate destination in mind. Eschewing America and Europe in the aftermath of the war, the couple have come to Africa as an escape, hoping to find some kind of meaning in an ever-changing world.

There is a sense that Port views himself as an intrepid traveller, keen to explore the mysteries and remoteness of an unfamiliar land. He is perpetually restless, continually searching for something, although quite what that something is remains rather unclear.

Kit, for her part, is acutely aware of the emotional distance between herself and Port, their marriage having crumbled to dust in the preceding years. Brittle and highly strung by nature, Kit lives a life governed by superstitions, a series of omens that dictate her mood and ability to function. There are times when the feeling of doom surrounding Kit becomes so strong that it results in a form of stasis, almost as if she is experiencing a strange kind of paralysis.

While the Moresbys share much in the way of feelings and emotions, they are divided by their outlooks on life, a situation typified by the following passage.

It made her [Kit] sad to realize that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed. […]

And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it. But in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much: the terror was always there inside her ready to take command. It was useless to pretend otherwise. And just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, he was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built to long ago to save himself from love. (p. 98-99)

Accompanying the Moresbys on this trip is their friend, Tunner, a somewhat opportunistic chap who appears to be tagging along for the ride. While Tunner has designs on Kit, his motives are ultimately shallow and devoid of any meaningful emotion. In truth, Tunner’s advances are driven predominantly by vanity and a sense of pity for the beautiful Kit. During the course of the journey, both of the Moresbys are unfaithful in rather casual and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

As the party travels south, the unrelenting heat of the desert and rather basic living conditions begin to take their toll, particularly on Port and Kit. There are long, uncomfortable train journeys and equally gruelling bus rides through barren landscapes and rough terrain. The hotels become dirtier and increasingly rancid and with each successive move. Consequently, the sense of unease becomes more palpable by the day, adding to the brooding atmosphere at play. There are disagreements between the couple with Port disappearing into the night, wandering the streets and alleyways of the shadowy towns where he encounters prostitutes and their handlers, both eager to exploit a foreign traveller. Meanwhile Kit longs for the culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean, an environment where her suitcase full of evening gowns might actually get an airing. Instead, she must submit to weevil-infested soup and rabbit stew with added fur, just two of the many hazards to be navigated by the Moresbys during their stay.

While all this might sound rather bleak, there are some moments of light relief here and there – for the reader, at least. Turning up again and again during the journey – much to the Moresbys’ annoyance – are the Lyles, a middle-aged Australian woman and her grown-up son, Eric. While Mrs Lyle is snobbish, obnoxious and insufferable, her son, Eric, is possibly even more unpleasant – a spoiled, untrustworthy brat, intent on tapping Port for some sort of loan. Their presence in the narrative adds an element of farce, accentuating the rather desperate nature of the Moresbys’ plight.

The Sheltering Sky is a potent, terrifying book, one that leads the reader into the heart of darkness, an existential journey in which any form of reconciliation or atonement remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Bowles vividly captures the inner lives of his central characters as the unforgiving nature of the environment permeates their souls. The hallucinatory feel of Port’s night-time ramblings, as he lies ill with a virulent fever, is brilliantly portrayed – as is Kit’s own terrifying descent into darkness in the days and weeks that follow, an experience that leaves her utterly broken and shell-shocked, possibly for good.

Before her eyes was the violent blue sky – nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. (p. 336)

Bowles’ prose is stunning, both lucid and evocative. I love this description of Kit from the beginning of the book, one that captures something of her disturbed mindset through the intensity of her eyes.

Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained. (p. 6-7)

The sense of place and suffocating atmosphere are also powerfully imagined, rich in authenticity and detail, qualities that undoubtedly reflect Bowles’ own experiences of travelling through Morocco and Algeria during the period in question.

Boussif was a completely modern town, laid out in large square blocks, with the market in the middle. The unpaved streets, lined for the most part with box-shaped one-storey buildings, were filled with a rich red mud. A steady procession of men and sheep moved through the principal thoroughfare towards the market, the men walking with the hoods of their burnouses drawn up over their heads against the sun’s fierce attack. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. At the ends of the transversal streets the bare waste-land sloped slowly upward to the base of the mountains, which were raw, savage rock without vegetation. (p. 89-90)

This is a fateful story of fractured souls, a couple who cannot meaningfully connect with one another, failing to realise the depth of their feelings until it is far too late. It is a tense, emotionally-draining read, brilliantly rendered by an imaginative writer. I can understand why it is considered a 20th-century classic.

The Sheltering Sky is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

43 thoughts on “The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

  1. Liz

    This sounds so powerful. Your review put me in mind of A Streetcar Named Desire in terms of the intensity of relationships and that suffocating quality. Have added it to the TBR list, thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really interesting compassion, Liz. I hadn’t thought about it at all, but now you mention it I can see where you’re coming from. Yes, certainly in terms of the intense, almost deliberately destructive nature of the relationships and the claustrophobic atmosphere. There’s an element of can’t-live-with-him/can’t-live-without-him going on between Kit and Port.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s pretty intense, that’s for sure – particularly the final section where Kit disappears off into the desert. There’s a surreal, nightmarish quality to that part of the story, and yet one can also visualise it happening in real life. I think that’s why I found it so terrifying in the end, the sense that it might not be so inconceivable after all.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I saw the 1990 film some time ago. I remember liking it but just liking it. However, I do not think that it was generally esteemed. The book sounds very bleak in a good way. I think that I would like it for the characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I may have seen it too, although my memories of it are rather blurred now. I think it’s hard to adapt something like this where so much of the power of the novel stems from the inner lives of their central characters, the intensity of their internal feelings and emotions. It’s one of the most impressive things about the book, which makes it challenging to convey that level of insight or state of mind through the medium of film.

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    Hmmm, I have the feeling there might be quite a bit of Paul and Sally Bowles’ life as a couple in there… Not sure I could cope with this right now, but sounds colourfully bleak, if such a thing is possible.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suspect you might be right there, although I don’t know enough about their relationship to comment in more detail. (I think it’s Jane rather than Sally, unless you’re thinking of Christopher Isherwood’s friend from his days in Berlin!) Colourfully bleak is a good way of describing it, particularly given the nature of the couple’s surroundings as they journey through the exotic landscapes of North Africa. There’s something frightening about the setting in spite of the glimpses of natural beauty. Definitely not a book I would recommend to you right now irrespective of its literary qualities!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Actually, it’s not such a mix-up after all! Someone on Twitter just mentioned that Isherwood took the name ‘Bowles’ from Paul whom he had met in Berlin in the early ’30s. Apparently Isherwood was quite attracted to PB back in the day, although I don’t know if anything more lasting ever came of it…

          Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    Very glad you liked this Jacqui! I had read The Sheltering Sky a couple of years ago and had loved it then despite the overall bleakness of the novel, which strangely is what made it so fascinating in the first place. I don’t recall all the details now, but what has stayed with me even today is the final section of the novel, which takes a completely different turn, heightening the strangeness and the overall feeling of dread.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re absolutely right about the overriding sense of darkness in the novel. It’s what makes it so compelling, the sense that these individuals are hell bent on destroying their relationship (and possibly themselves) one way or another. The final section is truly haunting, isn’t it? I’m not surprised that it’s stayed with you over the past couple of years.

      Have you read anything else by Bowles or just this one? This was my first, but I’d be tempted to try him again if his others are of a similar standard.

      Reply
      1. Radz Pandit

        This is the only novel I have read. He is also a terrific short story writer. I have an edition of his collected short stories and read a couple of them, which were excellent. One was called A Distant Episode if I am not mistaken.

        Both displayed his trademark theme – Westerners appearing out of sorts when confronted with strange elements in a foreign land.

        Very keen now to explore the rest of his stories.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          The stories sound excellent, very much in line with the feel of this novel. That’s reassuring in a way, a sense that he found a particular seam that could be mined or explored across multiple stories while still maintaining the level of quality. I’ll have to take a closer look when I’m next in town.

          Reply
  5. Grass and Vanilla

    Wow what a terrific review Jacqui. I read some of Paul Bowles’ short stories quite recently and they also had such a powerful sense of bleakness and horror under the endless North African sky, just as you describe here. They’ve really stayed with me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you. I’m glad you like it. Those stories sound excellent, very much in line with the suffocating atmosphere Bowles creates here. I shall have to investigate…Have you written about them by any chance?

      Reply
  6. Jane

    This is such a great review, I haven’t read it but it sounds terrific – all the heat and bleakness and tortured souls! Your description at the beginning reminded me of ‘Casablanca’ and the chaos in North Africa after the war with everyone trying to get home.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. Tortured souls indeed! I adore Casablanca. It’s one of those films I can watch again and again without ever tiring of it. I think there’s definitely an element of the chaotic, turbulent atmosphere at play here too. It’s a very atmospheric novel, heady with the unrelenting intensity of heat and dust.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fab review Jacqui. I’ve dipped into the start of the novel some time back but never got all the way in. I’d like to read it, particularly as I think highly of Jane’s work, but I think I’ll have to prepare myself for the darkness. You do make a very compelling case for reading the book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know it’s funny. I’ve had a similar experience with this literary couple but it’s been the other way around. I’ve never been able to get into Two Serious Ladies in spite of a couple of persistent attempts. Maybe we need to find a way of swapping mindsets for a while, just to give them another try!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This was my first experience of PB and I was suitably impressed! Fitzgerald was the closest comparison I could think of in terms of the characterisation. Kit has that brittle, almost tragic quality that I tend to associate with the Fitzgerald set, albeit 15 or 20 years down the line.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think the general consensus is that the film is pretty dire. I read one review yesterday which called it “wincingly embarrassing”. Ouch! The novel, however, is spectacularly good. It really blows away that idealised view of foreign travel, the romanticised vision of exploring new cultures and territories. A cautionary tale on the dangers in the unknown.

      Reply
  8. lonesomereadereric

    What a great summary and reaction to this. I think I’m definitely due to reread this as I read it in my teenage years and don’t recall much about it – so I really appreciate how you brought it back for me. I’m sure this time I would have a much deeper understanding of the existential journey it takes you on.
    Have you ever read Jane Bowles’ very odd novel Two Serious Ladies?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks Eric. That’s very kind of you to say. I think a re-read would be very interesting, particularly because it feels like a novel best appreciated with a little life experience under your belt. I’m not sure what I would have made of it had I read it in my teens, but it’s likely that some of the nuances on the destructive nature of highly charged relationships would have been lost on me!

      It’s funny you should mention Two Serious Ladies because I have tried to read it a couple of times but without much success. Odd (or unhinged, even) definitely fits with my recall of it. One of those books that you have to be in the right frame for, I suspect!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. Very kind of you to say. It’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Really visceral, particularly that final section where Kit get swept up by the menacing forces at play in the desert.

      I’ll have to take a closer look at the stories. Did you read a collected volume or a selection of some sort? It’s useful to know.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        I think it was the two collections, Midnight Mass and Call at Corazon that I read – some time ago. They weren’t consistently good, as I recall, but when they were they were excellent.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, thanks. I shall have a look at those two. That’s fine about the variation in quality – I don’t mind a little inconsistency every now and again, especially across a collection of short stories. It often means you appreciate the gems all the more!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a book I had wanted to read for a while without ever actually finding the right time until recently. I think you’d find it interesting, if somewhat intense. It has that terrible sense of foreboding where you just know that something terrible is going to happen at some point…

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Caroline

    I read this ages ago. Not a book I would reread but it made a huge impression. Unfortunately, the movie spoilt the book fir me a bit. Bowles was one of the reasons why I visited Morocco several times.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand why Bowles made you want to visit Morocco as he writes so vividly about the landscape and cultural ‘feel’ of a place – well, certainly based on my experience of reading him here. The film sounds like one to avoid, to be honest. It strikes me as being quite a challenging novel to adapt as so much of its power stems from the inner thoughts and feelings of the central characters. That sense of interiority would be quite difficult to capture in a film.

      Reply

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