Jo Parfitt is mistress of the pen and of the word. With 27 non-fiction books to her name, including cookbooks, guides for career management, coaching for creative writers, even computer handbooks, she has inspired many budding authors by "sharing what I know to help others grow" and with her `brainwave to bookshelf' tutorials.
Sunshine Soup is her first novel. It is, by her own admission, the book that has scared her the most to write. God! There's no hope for the rest of us mere mortals, then!
The book is most definitely an expat book, though the narrative flows around fictional characters rather than the more usual memoirs. So rumour has it, anyway - it is very hard not to suspect that there is a large piece of Jo in Maya, the main character, with her in-depth knowledge of Dubai, her abiding love of her therapeutic kitchen and her propensity to encourage people around her to flourish.
I started the book knowing nothing of Dubai. The visuals drummed up by Jo's compelling descriptions brought it to life for me, and give a very solid background setting for the very real characters that are splashed across the canvas.
The issues of being an expat wife, trailing spouse, or whatever label is currently fashionable, are very clearly stated. With Maya, it is the wrench of leaving behind a business partnership into which she had poured energy and devotion, and the subsequent realisation that she will not be allowed to work in her new life. The coming to terms with the lack of direction, even in her own home, where she feels guilty about the undertaking of any task to which the housemaid lays prior claim. The loneliness of being a freshly arrived alien, whose kids go off to school to sink or swim without her assistance.
With Barb, it is the self-created trap of the furious filling to the brim of her time, just to avoid her own company and empty moments that would give room for reflection on sad events and on her fulfilling partner-role. Her heavy-handed involvement in and organisation of just about all things available for input makes her the dependable one, the one who is always there, always strong - quite a formidable character, but everyone has secrets, and their own Achilles heel, and she is no exception.
With other characters, Jo delivers further insights into the various and myriad difficulties that come hand-in-hand with the life of the expat wife.
There were two aspects of the book that I especially liked. The first is its ability to encompass the viewpoint of the working spouse, too - Maya's husband, Rich, as the shaker and mover in the expatriation, also has a tale to tell of his own problems in his new environment.
The second is the glimpse we are allowed into a couple of Arab relationships, as their unfolding stories intertwine with the expat narratives.
All in all, a colourful, honest, and sensitive while informative book that I enjoyed thoroughly.
Oh, and by the way - as a bonus, Jo generously shares with us the mouth-watering recipes served up through the narrative. Love it!