A month ago I could have written a fantastic review of this book – its tension, its creepiness, its unlikeable protagonist, the works. But for now, here are the basics. This is a novel about David Henniger and his wife Jo, successful but unhappy London professionals who travel to Morocco to attend a hedonistic weekend gathering at the home of their friends Richard and Dally. David and Jo are fractious on the long drive from the coast to their friends’ rural enclave, and David drinks way more alcohol than anyone who is about to be driving for hours in a rental car on narrow dirt roads in a foreign country has a right to drink. Jo complains about his drinking but doesn’t insist he stop or that she take the wheel. This early exposition seems to epitomize their relationship, which is miserable and driven forward by habit and inertia. Before they reach Richard and Dally’s compound, a young man steps into the road in front of the car, and David hits him. Unsure of what to do, David props the dead man up in the back seat of the car, and he and Jo continue on their way.
Writing the plot out in this way makes me wonder why I continued reading after this opening chapter. I don’t have much experience with late-night vehicular manslaughter, mind you, but if I did I certainly would not put the corpse in my rental car and bring it along to the home of my hedonistic friend. In every other way, David is portrayed throughout this novel as a jerk. Not as a terrible person – there’s no suggestion that he killed the man on purpose, and he definitely feels guilty for the accident – but as a jerk, the kind of guy who if he killed a man by accident certainly wouldn’t bother to take responsibility for the body. This moment is also clearly the novel’s first crisis point: the place that determines the route the novel will take. And this novel is very well structured: it unfolds from this moment of original sin and proceeds step by step toward its conclusion in a series of plausible, inevitable steps. But the initial incident is a bit off, in my opinion. The novel never fully convinces me that David is the sort of person who would take a body into his car in the way he does.
This is a novel about both the clash of cultures and the divide between rich and poor. Richard and Dally are fantastically wealthy and have essentially purchased a small town, built a wall around it, and created their own little world of miniature pleasure palaces. They have many local servants whom they seem to treat relatively well, but they are also distrusted by the locals both for their Western-ness (one is British and one American) and for being, you know, “sodomites.” But while they are known factors in their community who, if nothing else, help stimulate the local economy, the locals have no patience for David, whom they see as a symbol of Western arrogance and dislike immediately. Dally also becomes angry at David for bringing the body to their party and therefore bringing suspicion and bad joo-joo down on their home. So when some of the dead boy’s relatives show up at the compound wanting to take David for a three-day ride into the Moroccan backcountry, Dally and some of the servants stand back and let them take him.
This book is part of the “multiple threads of cultural misunderstanding lead to tragedy” genre that for a while seemed poised to be the seminal art form of our era – a genre epitomized by Little Bee and White Tiger and Tortilla Curtain and Barbarian Nurseries and by the movies Crash and Babel – until it was eclipsed by the climate-change-related dystopia. Of course every character has his or her own perspective on the plot, and Osborne provides flashbacks to the life of the dead man, whose name was Driss, and we learn that he too had his complicated story. And along the way we also learn about Morocco’s fossil market. Before I read this book, I did not know that one of the primary livelihoods for the poor in North Africa comes from selling fossils that apparently are a dime a dozen in the naked rock cliffs in the northern Sahara (I did, however, experience the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon about the Moroccan fossil market for about a week after I read this book, and what’s not to like about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?). Many of the local people who climb the cliffs, remove the fossils (which seem to be largely sea creatures, from a previous geographical era when the Sahara was covered by water), clean them, and prepare them for sale believe that they are the remains of demons that once populated the earth but were destroyed in Noah’s flood. So when they learn that wealthy people in the west want to pay large amounts of money to buy demon corpses to mount in their homes and gardens, they become even more suspicious of Westerners than they already were.
This hasn’t been a great review, since my memory of the book wasn’t the greatest – but I do recommend it. I was riveted by it while I was reading, and I think it’s well crafted and look forward to reading other titles by this author. And the ending – well, the ending borrows a play from Flannery O’Connor’s playbook (spoiler alert for those in the know: think Misfit), and was moderately satisfying. But only moderately.