A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Plus a FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY – read (or skip …) to the end for details.
Most years, the announcement of the shortlist for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year award generates little more than a sedate ripple of interest in the media. This year, however, when the identities of the six shortlisted authors were revealed, the Press Association’s Wire service spread the news around the world and within hours people in the most remote corners of the globe knew that one of the shortlistees was – shock-horror – A MAN. Yes, one of those people who buy their shirts by collar size and can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want the offside rule explained to them.
Amazir – A Novel of Morocco was written by former soldier, businessman and (briefly) rough-sleeper Tom Gamble.
Curious to see if the male approach to writing romances differed from the female one, Moira got her hands on a copy, then compared notes with Jay Benedict, one of the judges of this year’s award …
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MB: As a bit of an intro – Amazir is – very basically – the story of two men, an American and an Englishman, who first meet in Gibraltar in 1938. The Englishman, Harry Summerfield, is en route for Spain to fight in the Civil War but is talked out of it by the American – Jim Wilding – and travels with him to Morocco instead, where they part company. At this point, an enigmatic Moroccan named Abrach enters Summerfield’s life, engaging him to write love letters to a French schoolgirl – à la Cyrano de Bergerac. That young woman – Jeanne – is the pivot around whom the entire novel turns; the focus of the attentions of Summerfield, Wilding and Abrach.
The very first thing that hit me about Amazir was how atmospheric it was … Morocco is conjured up so evocatively that you can almost smell it and taste it.
JB: I liked this book a lot. I hitch-hiked across Morocco in 1968 – rucksack on my back, sleeping on hotel roofs for 10 centimes, staring at the stars, drinking all that delicious mint tea with giant rocks of sugar in tall glasses … I too hung out with the Berbers in the Atlas mountains for a while and was also rounded up and thrown into prison for the weekend in Tangiers when Hassan II was de passage. When Summerfield gets rounded up by the French colonial police and beaten up, the exact same thing happened to me, only by the Arab police, in my case. A bit like the Belgians in the Congo, the French passed on all their worse traits to their Arab brothers. In other words the sins of the parents were definitely passed onto their children. We were left in an open courtyard for the weekend to freeze at night and bake during the day, with no food and no explanation other than the King didn’t want to see any ‘hippie’ foreigners on the street, despite the fact that we were all wearing djellabahs and trying desperately to blend in. Much like Summerfield in the book, round about page 71, it painfully didn’t work!
That entire description in the book pretty much happened to me: the anger, the violence, the Gendarmes demanding ’Papiers!’. “The smell of eau de Cologne and sweat wafting from khaki uniforms….” I was transported right back there. The historical accuracy, the French language and Arab culture all ring true.
MB: I thought that was probably the case – it all ‘felt’ right, even though I’ve never set foot in North Africa. I was also very impressed by his handle on colonialism, and the extraordinary (to us) mind set of the colonial ‘masters’ who didn’t see anything wrong in treating the native inhabitants like second-class citizens in their own country. And the book isn’t just set in the approach to the Second World War, it’s also set just 15 years before Morocco finally gained its independence. All of which makes a slightly unusual setting for a ‘romance’ – although I’m not really sure the term fits the book that comfortably. It’s written mostly from Summerfield’s perspective – we see the world through his eyes for a good part of the time – and given the fact that the author knows quite lot about being an Englishman in Morocco himself that’s not too surprising. But it took me a while to adjust to it – the male character/s being more prominent (and I have to say more convincing) than the female ones, which veered very slightly towards – not quite caricature, more – I don’t know. I think I felt they were just slightly sketchy. But then, probably, a man reading a romance written by a woman feels the same way about the male characters in those?
JB: He writes sex very well though. Warm bellies pressed against groins, noble erections, at the same time making analogies with water coming to the boil as the Gendarmes are knocking at his door once more. The reader is kept on his toes at all times: it’s romance but mixed with action/adventure, which in my mind makes it different. It’s certainly a lot more graphic than any of the other romantic novels I’ve read of late, and that’s definitely male. It’s not gratuitous and overdone but just right, sensitive even.
As well as being part The Go-Between (think Joseph Losey…) and part Cyrano he’s also part Laurence of Arabia; he goes native, and you sort of go with it. There’s nothing else he can do after all when he gets taken hostage. Think John Macarthy, Terry Waite etc … they came back full of compassion. Summerfield has a lot of character development; his relationship with Jeanne changes through the book and he finds the adult in himself – which is, after all, what was missing in the beginning, and was indeed noted after their first exchange. This is terrific stuff.
If anything, it goes on too long with endless description of the Atlas Mountains in all their seasons especially towards the end. He needed a good editor to make it a tighter narrative. It was too long rather like Passage to India. You know, once you climax you don’t need the extra 100 pages ….
MB: So to speak … Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree about the sex. I didn’t think it was written badly by any means, but I did slightly question his understanding of the female sexual response. At least once, I found myself thinking “You what? However did THAT happen?” – and he really, really needs to find a few more words to describe the relevant anatomical ‘bits’ – he used the phrase ‘his sex’ and ‘her sex’ over and over and over again. It all got a bit monotonous for this reader. But you’re right that it wasn’t gratuitous – it was plot-driven – and I’ve certainly read a lot worse. It’s interesting though, that it worked for you and not for me … Almost certainly a result of it having been written by a man, I suspect.
Completely agree that the book needed a good editor, though. I felt it would have benefited from being about 50 pages shorter. It wasn’t that the descriptions were badly done – quite the opposite – but they slowed the narrative. When you really wanted to know what happened next you were ploughing through yet another description of the scenery – which is a shame, because the narrative itself cracks along at a tremendous pace, and unusually – perhaps again because it was written by a man – I wasn’t at all sure where it was headed, who was going to survive, who was going to die messily and whether anyone at all was going to get to live happily ever after. It didn’t quite fit the standard ‘romance’ format. I liked that. And I particularly liked the character development – the way Summerfield and Jeanne’s feelings for each other subtly shifted through the course of the book – and the growth of his understanding of, and respect for, the Berbers – it was almost another love story in its own right.
And running through it all, of course, is a fascinating but grim bit of history – the view of the war from North Africa – the fall of France, the Vichy government – De Gaulle in exile. All terrifically well done.
JB: Speaking of grim history I can’t help but noticing that the missions civilizatrices the French and English and every other colonial power ever embarked on leave nothing but confusion in the end. The English in India for example, I mentioned the Belgians earlier – and the French in Viet-Nam/Algeria/Morrocco, etc. Their collective legacy usually left a worse one in place. The late 60s was no better than the 1940s as I recall. Gamble really captures that WW2 chaos brilliantly and to me the characters ring true right down to Jeanne’s petty bourgeois parents and all those Berbers in the mountains. The only let down, we’re agreed, is in the editing – but we disagree about “the rise and fall of her ribs and the inexorable synchronicity of their movements”? Great read all the same.
MB: I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly add to that …
Beautiful Books. 2010. ISBN: 978-1905636976. 538pp.
GIVEAWAY: For a chance to win a copy of Amazir (and make up your own mind about all that ‘inexorable synchronicity’ …) just post a comment, asking to be entered in the draw. The winner will be the first name out of the hat on Wednesday the 11th of May.
(The eventual winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2011 was Jojo Moyes’ The Last Letter from Your Lover – and you can read Jay’s review of it HERE.)