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on May 4, 2003
Beautifully-written novel about the cruelty of that which we do not know or understand. There were unbelievable descriptions of the filth and abject poverty in the some of the North African cities. At these times, it was difficult to see the beauty that the main traveler, Port, was searching for, and also laid to waste a lot of the glamor attached to the "world traveler" in third-world countries. The entire story was filled with poetic imagery of the desert, death, the sky, the sun and heat. Also many characters along the journey; the descriptions of the Lyles were incredible: A wonderful picture of such a disgusting and despicable pair. There were many other characters like the menacing Captain Broussard, the frightening yet intriguing Belqassim.
For the first part of the book, we met Kit and Port, who supposedly went to North Africa to rekindle their marriage, although I didn't get that impression simply because a) Port invited his friend Tunner and b) Kit didn't seem to share Port's interest in North Africa and c) neither Port nor Kit seemed interested in each other once they got there. At some point, all three of them had cheated on each other, betraying each other's trust, friendship, and love, though the issue was never confronted by any of them. In fact, these characters' personalities and relationships to each other were the most bewildering issues of the book.
There was a constant criss-crossing between a desperately strong sense of duty (without knowing why) to utter complacency and indifference between Kit and Port. They, along with Tunner, seemed rich, spoiled and ignorant. I couldn't understand their reactions to certain situations; such as Tunner's thoughts as to how his friends at home would interpret Port and Kit's disappearance, or Kit's reaction to Port's death, or Port's overreactions to Kit! Then again, the three of them were in an extreme environment. They wandered aimlessly in another world, void of Western reason, void of Western fairness, powerful, unyielding, and wholly unsympathetic.
I loved Bowles' constant symbolism throughout the book; such as Marhnia's retelling of the story of the women who wished for tea in the sahara, for which they got more than they bargained. Then there was the train dream that was so important for Port to interpret: "one's hesitation was an involuntary decision to refuse participation" in life. I think that this sentence pretty much described Port, Kit and Tunner. Again, they drifted much of the time, making decisions very much on a whim, living moment to moment, refusing to face the feelings deep in their conscience: Guilt, regrets, fear, etc. Finally, Port's stolen passport was a wonderful symbolism of his inevitable erasure from existence.
The last section of the novel was fantastic. Kit was forced to stop living according to omens in the sky, forced to stop living in fear. Up until this point, most of her living was vicarious through Port. Her journey with the men in the caravan was frightening and savage, yet it completely opened a long-hidden facet in her character. The irony was that it took her to the point of no return. Once she was "saved," it was sadly clear that no Westerner could possibly understand what she experienced, so it seemed fitting that Kit would just disappear into her own madness, or was it even madness?
Yes, I loved this novel--a gorgeous illustration of the cruel beauty of the desert and its culture. Such a seemingly benign environment was powerful enough to bring any arrogant Westerner physically and psychically, to his knees.
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on August 12, 2008
Paul Bowles has spun a dramatic and unforgiving landscape in great detail. The story takes place in post-WWII North Africa predominantly in the Sahara. The book is very descriptive, and the characters are introduced and grow throughout the story, although I never feel particularly drawn to them. Three people, our protagonist Port Moresby with his wife Kit and his friend Tunner, adventuring together avoiding tourist areas and seeking the real Sahara. Although the Moresbys have traveled together in the past, the third party does make a difference in attitudes and understanding. The book is written in 3 distinct parts.

The clash of cultures is not helped when an older woman with her adult son crash the scene with little conception of who they are walking all over. And are they really who they seem? They follow very closely the same paths as Port, Kit and Tunner. It is not long before our travellers are split up in various ways and various combinations. Everything that appears to be so tranquil seems to be wrapped around something dark and dangerous. Depression, illness and loss become almost constant companions. Kit's solo journey through the desert was interesting and the unchanging views were so well described I could actually see them in my mind. The caravan she joins feels real. As Kit becomes more and more withdrawn from reality one begins to wonder if she will ever return to herself.

In the third part, I felt disillusioned with the everyone! I can understand in a world of poor with an almost complete lack of ability to communicate because of the language barrier, but what I can't fathom is why those who spoke English or French could not see what was happening with Kit. I thought the ending was too abrupt and unfinished. It just left me feeling a sense of loss. I did like the book for its descriptive nature, but I can't say that it really grabbed me.
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on September 26, 2003
The Sheltering Sky may be the best book I ever read that nearly failed my 50-page rule. That's the rule I made up that allots a book that many pages to convince me to continue. If it fails to do so, it's back to the shelf or into a box -- sometimes to never be heard from again.
The Sheltering Sky is a good book, but it starts slow and never manages to evolve into any kind of a page-turner. But something I can't put my finger on wouldn't let me push it aside after those 50 pages, something I'm now very glad for.
The general premise of the story is simple: three Americans travel to Morocco in the wake of the Second World War to escape civilization and to find themselves. But the story is really an exploration into the way people react in a crisis and especially the way Americans interact with unfamiliar cultures.
It makes for a memorable if not effortless read, one of the popular 20th century books that deserve the label "classic" and that will compel you to confront your own morality, ethics, arrogance and pathos.
Though the book is dense and serious, it is not without a few subtle jokes: the two rival French army commanders, one of whom drinks only cognac and the other named d'Armagnac; the pathetic and entertaining Lyles; the unintentionally comic diplomat who tries to help Kit over the book's final pages.
I'll conclude with a tip: once you've finished The Sheltering Sky, go back and re-read the first chapter. It's beautifully written, but some of its insights are clear only in retrospect.
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on July 11, 2003
In terms of plot, The Sheltering Sky is principally about a collapsing marriage and the intrusion of "another man." But at its heart the book is about the loneliness of the desert, which is also the loneliness of individual human hearts, and about our attempts to break through the sky into what lies beyond, and our failures to do so caused by fear.
The plotting is simple and direct, but it's Bowles' insights into our fears and self-erected emotional barriers that drive the novel. The desert provides more than just imagery; it creates an atmosphere in which drama and tension thrive. The prose is beautiful throughout.
Yet the novel completely falls apart in the final section, in which Kit undergoes an emotional exile and (false?) return. The competency Bowles displays earlier in the novel in depicting human emotions and motivations completely disappears; the plot becomes an extended male fantasy of sexual imprisonment that cheapens the quality of the novel as a whole. Such truths as Bowles reveals in this section of the book could have been given much more powerfully and simply without this absurd detour into Arab sexual adventurism.
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on November 4, 2002
If you are expecting The Sheltering Sky to be nothing more than a travelogue of Morocco coupled with a forgettable story ... well, you'll be surprised. Perhaps more so than any other novel I've read Paul Bowles succeeds in expressing the most deep, complex human emotions into words. And he does so without making The Sheltering Sky a cumbersome read. The narrative flows rather well. Yet this book is not for avid readers of Oprah books; The Sheltering Sky is far more ambitious and disturbing than anything published nowadays. And as for a travelogue, this book will not enhance Morocco's tourist business.
The story? On the surface it is about a floundering American couple who, in the late 1940s, head to Morocco with hopes of having some fun (and salvaging their marriage). However as we soon learn, through deliciously subtle language, is that not only is their marriage having troubles but our couple have seemingly forgot about their reasons for living. Worse, this trip becomes a nightmare ( spoilers). Towards the end of the book we get an especially close look at the wife's spiritual death/re-birth (..this latter aspect might be offensive to conservative/religious folks).
As with the other reviewers I must say The Sheltering Sky is truly a special, memorable read. It is a challenging but not an especially difficult read. And I found the author's views of Arabs and foreigners to be relatively balanced. Or rather, no one race/nationality is portrayed better/worse at the expense of another.
Bottom line: one of the few books rightly called a modern classic.
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on June 7, 2000
I consumed The Sheltering Sky in one day. It was interesting and I had the time. The end left me very depressed and disturbed. I do not like being depressed and so my first impression was that I did not like this book. Then I read other reviews and decided that a book that can depress you is pretty powerful. On the whole, I got the impression that the Moresby's were procrastinating their life and merely subsisting. Bowles exposes their weaknesses in all areas, Kit's especially. Both the Moresby's lose their sanity at the end, if not more than that. I would give this book four stars except that it didn't give me the desire to read it again. Some passages were very hard to discern and some details seemed unnecessary. As I said before,a very disturbing read.
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on December 26, 2003
(Review in Spanish).Como muchos seguramente, emprendí la lectura de este libro tras haber visto la película del mismo nombre de Bernardo Bertolucci. Encontré que el film es bastante fiel a la novela en algunos puntos, mientras que partes importantes de la novela (como la narración de la historia de las hermanas que querían tomar el té en el Sahara) fueron omitidos de la película.
Pero, ¿Cómo es el libro? Por el lado bueno, la prosa de Bowles es intensa y precisa, transportando al lector al calor, la basura y el encanto particular de Africa .Algunas frases son memorables. Por el lado malo, Bowles tiende a alargar demasiado ciertas situaciones (la enfermedad de Port, el viaje personal de Kit), haciendo con ello difícil y tediosa la narración.
En suma, el libro tal vez es para aquellos que ya conocen a Bowles o los que estudian Letras, aman la literatura, etc. Los lectores casuales pueden rentar la película y acabar con el asunto en un par de horas, ahorrandose tiempo y dinero, y quedar igualmente satisfechos.
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on November 25, 2003
The book is well written in that I felt I was traveling in the hot, humid desert to the mysterious North African cities with the 3 American characters, and was able to get into the interior of their minds and how they comprehended being in an alien culture. The beginning was slow but once you get going into the book the more interesting the journey becomes. The three American's are not very sympathetic people in the book, except maybe Port who seems to want to try to understand the native people and have relationships with them such as Marhnia, but her story of having Tea in the Sahara is as imcomprehensible as her and frusturating because I wanted to connect to Marhnia and understand her story like Port but could not. I also like the way the author writes about the minds of other people like the Lieutenant d'Armagnac;"His overt attitude toward the people of Bou Noura was that they were an acessible part of a great tribe from whom the French could learn a great deal if they would only take the trouble." What's interesting about Lieutenant d-Armagnac is that he wanted to communicate and understand the local's but also failed to do so despite his best intentions. Overall The Sheltering Sky is an excellent story about how Three American travelers are tragically link to a culture that they, like most travelers do not know very much about in that they failed to take in the realities such as the heat, food, disease, and the native people intil it was too late. Maybe being just a tourist is not such a bad idea after all.
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on July 10, 2003
The Sheltering Sky is pretty dull. The action and events of the story are mostly angst-based, anxiety and uncertainty providing much of the motive force that get its characters through their adventures. After a wonderful start, complete with some passages of rather detailed psychological insight, we are taken along with these hardly exotic American strangers through lands that seem every bit as alien to us as they do to them. And the tension of being a stranger in strange lands crosses the boundries of fiction and somehow invades us in our homes.
It is a slow to appreciate book (at least it was for me), with a desire for something to happen and a continuing frustration when nothing does. Near the end of the novel I began the see the power in this particular approach: to put the reader literally there with them, seeing that the character's romanticized delusions and high-minded ideas about themselves are a large part of the reason they are all so unsuccessful in their endeavours. And, what's worse, that the boredom we might experience when winding through the occasional meandering, exhaustive passages describing for pages on end the windswept sub-structures of the calcified desert sand is also what these characters are feeling, kind of a helplessness under the power of something they cannot comprehend, much less control.
Here is a book about being pushed to the limits. It tells of the numerous personal failures a traveller might accomplish, of the ways in which they respond to crisis and of how ultimately futile all of this is if you're more interested in what a foreign land says about you than what it actually says about itself.
Beautifully written and only slashed down to four stars (on the four-and-a-half I give it) because anything under five has to get rounded down. This was a book that I actually contemplated over when reaching this superficial decision, one that each of the main characters would no doubt have taken even longer to come to.
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on February 18, 2003
The scope of Paul Bowles' *The Sheltering Sky* is two-fold: on the outside it is the tale of three young Americans traveling around North Africa after the World War. In a deeper level it is really a terrifying, exhilarating journey into the depth of human existence. Kit and Port Moresby's marriage was jeopardized. They came to the desert to escape from civilization, to escape from one another. The couple had never settled down in any one place, but rather they casually intended to move from one place to another in Africa in order to avoid places that had been touched by wars. The couple was also joined by a mutual friend Tunner and with whom emarked on a journey into the forbidden Sahara. What this book strikes me the most is the way Bowles examines the ways in which Americans apprehend an alien culture (as well as alien land). The very same apprehension at the end in a sense destroyed these Americans. As they emarked on their journey, further and further away from civilization, we can see how the cultural superiority of these fellow Americans dominate their thoughts-how they not trust the locals, the Arabs, the porters of town, the butler at inns. The journey forced these Americans to push the limits of human life. Each one of them was touched by the unspeakableemptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert. I don't want to give away the ending of the tale but this is definitely not a page-turner as you, the reader, will have to emark yourself on this journey and think about the limits of human reason and intelligence, about the powerlessness in controlling our fate. Beautiful prose, challenging reading. 4.2 stars.
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