I found myself intensely involved with this unusual novel- the act of reading it for me was like embarking upon a magical mystery tour or falling down a rabbit hole. The story itself is familiar enough - a young woman artist, disappointed by love and her career takes up a vague appointment in Morocco for a character called The Historian. She is neglected there and is in a place where she experiences misogyny. She falls prey to neediness and gratitude for scraps of attention and becomes a conduit for bad energies. I was horrified by the later turn of events, especially as I identified with certain aspects of Maia - the feistiness and vulnerability, the backbiting from other women and when I was younger the neediness. I was equally relieved at Maia's final ability to draw upon her own strength to help herself out of a tight fix. Another aspect of my identification with the central character was her painting as at around the same period of my life I was involved in the creative arts.
I am full of admiration for Alexandra Singer for writing this book having survived a long coma and a near fatal neurological illness. I have a sense however, that the illness may have given her an enviable tap-line into the creative unconscious. If I can try to explain: the viewpoint of the narration seems like that of a dream. I used to be an avid recorder of my dreams which is perhaps why I have picked up this. For example, in one scene Maia drunkenly lunges at Cassandra but the other men present are too 'transfixed' to attempt to stop her. Armand puts his arm around Cassandra but is silent, 'alternately gazing at Maia and examining his fingernails.' For me, it is this type of precise yet seemingly random description that gives one the feeling of hyper-reality. You feel that you are present and watching through a camera. This seems quite aptly, hallucinatory at points and time is stretched and shrunk - minutes can last several pages and weeks can pass by in a single line.
I am very excited by the dream-type language of Tea at the Grand Tazi. I have never read a book quite like it. The narrative technique had the ultimate effect for me of identifying strongly with Maia on both an unconscious level and in terms of my younger self. I recommend it wholeheartedly to other readers. I think you will get as involved with this story as I did.
Don't read this if you're planning to go to Marrakesh. But if you've ever been, you might enjoy this short novel more than someone who hasn't. Though "enjoy" might not be the right word.
Maia is a young artist who flees from London to Marrakesh to make a new start after a love affair gone wrong. She hopes to revitalize her painting and herself.
From the first paragraph we can see that she is consumed with questions about gender politics and sexual politics. A feminist flag is clearly nailed to the mast. In going to Marrakesh she hopes to be able to paint the women there in a way that allows her to explore these issues, and herself
Her new employer in this strange city introduces her to his friends and acquaintances, a dissolute bunch who hang around the Grand Tazi Hotel, which has seen better days. This is the story of what happens to her.
Most reviewers have been quite negative about the qualities of this book. It is true that Maia finds the place and the culture intimidating, and her observations reflect her negative view of this world. Everywhere and everyone is a threat, and events prove her to be correct rather than paranoid. But how much of her situation is of her own making?
The writing has a certain poetic quality, with its somewhat fragmented unfolding. In some ways it reminded me of Knut Hamsun's "The Hunger" and Dan Simmons' "The Song Of Kali", both stories being somewhat hallucinatory nightmares about alienation.
The Marrakesh of this tale is a place I recognize from my own experiences there, though we never went to the Grand Tazi (check it out on tripadviser.co.uk. She didn't make it up. 2/5 average from 103 reviews at the time of writing) There can be an alien and alienating aspect to it for a Western visitor. Maybe this was part of its fascination for me..
But Maia is repulsed rather than fascinated, and she is not treated well by her new-found manipulative friends. Indeed, they subject her to life-diminishing cruelties for their own ends, treating her as a fool for getting herself into this spiders' web.
Maia is not written as a person easy to sympathise with. The reader may admire her feminist and artistic concerns or find her annoying and self-absorbed. The writing is somewhat uneven and repetitious in places. OK it may be crafted to represent an unsettled and uneasy view of the world, but it makes it difficult for the reader to engage with this cast of unsympathetic characters.
In the final chapter she suddenly breaks free and returns to London and to some artistic acclaim. She even manages to return to Marrakesh and finds it changed. This feels very rushed and somewhat unconvincing.
So, not a book to read before going to Marrakesh. But perhaps an interesting curiosity if you've been there.
It took me two months to finish this book despite it being only a little over two hundred pages long. The initial premise looked encouraging and for the first few pages I thought it had potential but that view didn't last long. This is the worst book I've read all year, in fact probably the worst book I have read in the last five years. I only wish I had stopped reading well before the end but I am one of those people who will finish a book once I have started it in the hope that it will improve. Despite its short length this book seemed to spend a long time going nowhere.
The book was allegedly written after the author had visited Morocco. Part way through she suffered a serious illness and only finished the book later, having largely lost her memory of it. I can only assume she lost her memory of Morocco too because her presentation of Marrakech is grotesquely inaccurate. There is a seedy side to every place but Marrakech as depicted here has no redeeming features, although notably the characters are mainly expats and visitors.
The biggest problem for me is that I have no idea what the author was trying to convey but I think she thought she was saying something important. Maybe it's me, and I just didn't get it. I found the whole thing to be woolly, over-wrought and full of important sounding sentences that in reality are either banal or meaningless. The prose style is pretentious, clunky in the extreme and doesn't flow. I soon became annoyed by the use of unnecessary or inappropriate adjectives, and often thought that the author didn't seem to know what some words actually meant. Some of the writing seemed very strange - but not in an experimental way, where the author was exploring the use of language, it was just bad writing. There were a few 'continuity' errors too where something didn't fit with earlier events or descriptions. In parts the book suggested the author was aiming at John Bowles' novel 'A Sheltering Sky' but it falls woefully short of that.
The other major problem is that I didn't believe in the characters or the storyline. At crucial times for the plot I couldn't see why certain characters would behave in the way they do and the ending just didn't tie in with the depiction of Maia that had developed over the course of the book.
Perhaps a stronger editorial hand would have improved the book substantially both as to writing style and character development. As it is, this felt like a vanity published title. This view was probably reinforced by the fact that the advance reading copy I received was riddled with errors, duplicated paragraphs, etc.. I wouldn't normally comment on this, as an ARC by its nature isn't the finished product and you have to allow a fairly wide degree of latitude. This, however, was far and away the worst ARC I have ever received and doesn't reflect well on the publisher.
Maia is on the rebound from a long standing affair and jumps at the chance of being the personal assistant to the Historian in Marrakech, Morocco. She soon finds herself in the Medina, living a rather claustrophobic existence which is split between her tasks for her employer, her art, and her social life which revolves around the Grand Tazi.
The Grand Tazi is a magnet for the various ill assorted expatriates, who are drawn together because they are expatriates, but have little else in common. There are some interesting characters who drift in and out of this circle, most of whom have their own, rather doubtful agenda. They are Maia's acquaintances and people she spends time with, but none of them are close enough to be regarded as friends and that includes Armand who she is drawn to from the outset. In fact their motives remain unclear for most of the time. This is particularly so for the Historian, who is only referred to as the Historian throughout. He is a shady and enigmatic character who seems to be constantly on the edge of the action.
Meanwhile Maia reacts passively to this environment, almost in a drifting, dreamlike state for a lot of the time and particularly later in the story. She is clearly naive and has no real appreciation of where her actions and her casual attitude may possibly lead. Having said that she seems almost accepting of anything which occurs and on the only occasion she can be truly said to have been introduced to something against her will, she seems to bear little resentment. Whilst her life in Marrakech cannot be said to turn out well, one could certainly imagine much worst outcomes as a result of her naivety.
A particularly strong aspect of this book is the way the author conveys the sights, sounds and smells of Marrakech and this is so well done, that the reader almost feels like they are walking through the streets. The same goes of the Grand Tazi and you are left with a very clear impression of the rather rundown courtyard where these people spend their time.
I did not personally think the ending was as strong as what went before. However, the narrative throughout is crisp and clear and involves the reader and this is one of those books which holds the attention right from the start. All in all a promising first novel.
Maia is a young artist, who, having been dumped by her boyfriend, goes to Morocco to paint, financing it by acting as the assistant to a friend of a friend, the Historian, an academic who appears to be facing disgrace in Europe.
The narrative is told from Maia's point of view and we see the world through the certainties and tunnel vision of her youth, inexperience and what I am sure she believes is cynicism. The mystery and exoticism of the ancient city fit neatly into her mindset and the people she meets into the rôles she has assigned to them. Try to imagine a modern day Alice meeting sex and decadence in Morocco and you will get a sense of her dislocation from reality.
She decides that she is most interested in the lives of women and wants to paint them and they way they live and how they fit into society.
The Historian takes her to the Hotel Grand Tazi, a louche establishment run by Mahmoud. Mahmoud and his hotel manage to create an atmosphere of faded dissipation that is tinged both with hedonism and the hint of vice. The hotel's clientele consists of ex-pats and locals whose surface gloss and allure only partly conceals their amorality. Maia, in her self-appointed rôle as observer, dives in and allows herself to be swallowed up in the pool of corruption. She succumbs to physical and psychological enslavement, while still convincing herself of her integrity. She is manipulated and debased by men who are callous, vicious and completely uninterested in her. She is merely a commodity to be used and abused.
I found the ending a bit too neat and contrived, requiring Maia to show a strength which she has shown no sign of possessing.
I did not like this book for several reasons.
The first, most basic one is that I could not see what the author was trying to do. It cannot be classed as entertainment, nor as a cautionary tale as I did not feel that Maia learnt anything from what happened to her. Having talked at length about the condition of Moroccan women, she allows herself to be abused and debauched by a group of men far more thoroughly than the women whose plight she was concerned about, yet at the end of the book she has little insight into her behaviour.
The second reason is the stereotypical depiction of Moroccans which bordered on grotesque, even racist, caricature. More subtle characterisation would have improved the story and strengthened what it was trying to say.
The third reason was the unrelenting negativity of the story coupled with the extreme unpleasantness of all the characters. It was impossible to have empathy with anyone (except perhaps the Historian's housekeeper, who said "putain" every time she saw Maia).
The final reason is the really vile picture it paints of Morocco, making it seem like a cesspit of corruption and vice, which I am sure it is not. It is set in the near past, rather than the present, but even so it verges on the libellous (can one libel a country?) and was, I think, unnecessary. Again, mention of a few redeeming features would have strengthened the story.
Despite my complaints, I think Alexandra Singer can write. This is a very vividly written story. Some of the descriptive passages are repetitive, but the sense of the heat, smell and oppression of the setting are very strong.
Perhaps her next book will be more palatable.
Maia goes to work as assistant to a world renowned historian who has taken up residence in Morocco after a public fall from grace. An artist, Maia is looking for something new in her life but she is not sure what. The job with the Historian - he is almost always referred to like that in the book - allows her time to paint. She wants to paint the veiled women - to show a different aspect to them.
Maia's stay in Morocco does not turn out how she expects. She falls in with a group of ex-patriots who congregate at the Grand Tazi - a rundown hotel which is owned by Mahmoud who may or may not turn out to be a good friend to Maia. There are undercurrents at work and Maia will taste degradation before she understands what is happening to her. Can she survive and find a new direction in her life and in her art?
I enjoyed reading this book and it is well written. I was left with a vivid impression of the enervating heat in Morocco and the oppressive effect of an inward looking small group of ill-assorted people. It is clear to the reader from the beginning that there was more going on than had been revealed but Maia is slow to recognise the sub text. People make cryptic remarks and issue warnings which are far from clear but Maia is at a loss and seems to take everything at face value - to her detriment.
Overall this is an enjoyable in interesting read and it is an accomplished debut novel in my opinion. I look forward to reading more by this author.
I thought that this book would be a typical chick lit, boy meets girl type of book. I guess I was wrong by quite a lot! The book was quite dark, and got progressively more so as our main character was drawn into the darker side of Marrakech. I found the ending was rather rushed and the middle of the book did drag a bit, but other than this, a good read. You were compelled to find out what happened to her, and whether she managed to escape her demons.
A Lack of Tea !
The title of this book, sounded interesting, but by the time i got to end of it, i was left cold and wondering what had happened to the tea! The characters in the book didn't really have any substance to then and i felt that the story line didn't really flow and felt disjointed. Having finished reading the book, i looked back and wondered what it was about. I felt disappointed and a bit bewildered and would be interested what other people think of the book. Maybe i was missing something ?
on 7 February 2013
Maia, an artist as yet unknown, takes a job in Morocco as assistant to a renowned historian, now past his best. She meets numerous ex-pats at the Grand Tazi, a hotel of very faded grandeur, whose owner cultivates "characters". Not one of them is likeable, nor is Maia herself. The scenes in Marakech are well described, as are Maia's paintings, but nothing much happens. What little does is tedious and dreary. I was glad when I got to the end.
This book took me a long time to finish, despite a promising start. Like some other reviewers I seem to have missed exactly what the author was trying to say. I'm fairly sure that there was a point somewhere but it just got lost in the winding, claustrophobic writing, rather as Maia gets lost in the twisting, narrow streets of Marrakesh.
The main character, Maia, comes across as a sort of angry young woman on a mission, who does not seem to like the place she is in, the people she is with or, perhaps, herself. The other characters seem to be the stock group of European wastrels wilting under the North African sun and the equally stock wily locals, all eager to part the tourists from their money and the women from their clothes. In this mix floats the strange figure of the Historian who is supposedly writing a book that will get him back on the academic map. At times he seems to be the centre of the foreign group at the hotel and at others, just another character circling the swimming pool.
The writing is dense and tends towards purple passages. Perhaps this is a device to conjure up the "otherness" of Morocco. If so, it works well but is rather overused. This is what made reading such heavy weather for me and I arther fear that the writer's message would have clearer if the book had been less overwritten