TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 April 2009
The Gulf of the title symbolizes many aspects of this novel:
1. The location of the novel is in a Gulf emirate of Hawar, where the author, according to the acknowledgments, has spent much time. (A niggle: Hawar is a real place, but aspects of it - together with its politicians - appear to have been to some extent invented: according to Google, it is not an independent emirate, but a part of what had been the emirate of Bahrein, which had became a kingdom in 2002. A reference to the Bali bombing locates the setting round about October 2002, just before the beginning of the Iraq War in March 2003. I wish she had given the place another name. More googling suggests that the names she gives to some parts of Hawar may have been taken from places in Oman, North Yemen, Abu Dhabi and even Pakistan. Disconcerting.)
2. There is a gulf between the British expatriate characters in the book and the Hawaris, accentuated by the imminence of the war which was so widely expected. The narrator of the novel, the widowed Annie Lester, generally likes the Hawaris (except one or two of them) and realizes, both temperamentally and also from a practical point of view, that the expatriates should respect their culture.
3. There is a gulf between Annie and her brother and sister-in-law, who are visitors from England, and whose tactless and dismissive comments about Arabs set Annie's teeth on edge. Her brother Chris is a thoroughly unpleasant representative of colonial arrogance and bigotry - a rare type among his age group by 2002, I should think. (Annie seems to be in her forties.)
4. The central part of the story is about the gulf between homosexuals and heterosexuals. One of Annie's three sons, who is about 18, 'comes out' fairly early on in the book; and Annie, who had had no idea, finds it difficult but does her best to accept it - unlike her bewildered elderly father for whom, initially at least, this is quite beyond the pale; and you can rely on Chris and his wife Karen to be interfering and censorious. Other expatriates in that small community gossip about it and make lots of remarks which grate on Annie, so there is a gulf here, too. Besides, homosexuality, though apparently widely practised in Hawar, is illegal there, and a militant Shia cleric in the emirate is becoming increasingly influential. And when it emerges that Crown Prince is gay, the issue becomes explosive. (The suggestion that a member of the royal family, however fictional, could be gay - plus not least the suggestion that the non-fictional Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, IS gay - caused the organizers of the Dubai Literary Festival to withdraw its display, and it was subsequently banned throughout the United Arab Emirates. Geraldine Bedell's outrage at this - whatever one thinks about censorship - is surely somewhat disingenuous: her heroine would have been far too tactful to offend local sensitivities in this way.)
5. A substantial part of the book is about a relationship between Annie and James Hartley, a former lover, now an internationally famous and glamorous film-star who turns up to make a film in Hawar. I think the book could have done without this rather novelettish aspect. There are gulfs involved in this part of the story, too, but to expand on it would be a spoiler.
I find Annie an attractive and very well drawn character: despite her self-questioning, she is a good mother (the portraits of her three sons are excellent, too); she is clear-eyed (also about herself) if not always level-headed; she is sensible, sensitive and open-minded; and she has a sense of humour, though she finds herself increasingly in situations which are far from amusing. And we get a very good and interesting view of one of these Gulf states, where great wealth is on show in glittering new cities that are surrounded by ancient deserts. It is also good about political events, some real and some invented.
Despite my niggle at the beginning and my view about the Annie/James part of the story, I have found this book very well-written, compelling and in places a dramatic, tense and unpredictable.