Two women of different generations are obsessed with the idea of Arabia and their stories become entwined. The older woman is Maude Vickery. Born into a wealthy family, tiny, plain and fiercely intelligent, she reads about Arabia as a child and longs to see it for herself. An indulgent father bankrolls her travels and after earning (but not being allowed at that time) a 1st class degree, she sets off. Overcoming incredible difficulties and hardships, she becomes the first woman to cross the Empty Quarter. The first woman because she is beaten in the race by her childhood friend Nathaniel Elliot. Joan Seabrook is very different. Her family is not rich, her beloved father has been killed in a freak road accident, her adored brother is away in the army while her mother is sinking into depressed widowhood. Joan’s inspiration came from the tales her father told her, taken from The Arabian Nights. Her imagination was caught forever and she longs to see the desert for herself.
Joan’s story starts when she and her fiancé Rory travel to Oman (in 1958 a British Protectorate), where they stay at the British residency with kindly ‘Uncle Bobby’, a friend of her father. She is wildly excited at the thought of meeting her idol, Maude Vickery, who lives in a house nearby. Here is where I have to say that I took an enormous dislike to Joan. This is what I jotted down when I was about halfway through the book: ‘Joan knows nothing about men, nothing about politics, nothing about the desert and Oman. She’s a provincial nobody who should have stayed at home with her mother, married some nice bloke and had children. I really hate her!’ Harsh words but Joan is a really silly girl, twenty six going on twelve. She does get to meet Maude and her slave/companion Abdullah and is thrilled. She sees her brother and is forced to assess the relationship between him and Rory in a new way but does nothing about it. She puts at risk her own life and those of others through her own selfish obsession and her blindness to the way Maude is using her.
My advice to anyone else who feels the same way about Joan is: don’t give up! The ending really does make the whole book worthwhile. Maude is a bitter old woman and the revelation as to how unforgivably Nathan betrayed her plus the terrible revenge she plans for him (although both are now in their eighties) had me reading faster and faster to find out what would happen. The descriptions of Oman, the desert and its people are all excellent and the subject matter is unusual. I’ve read other books by Katherine Webb which I liked more than this one but it is a rattling good story if you can get past Joan. I’m sorry if you’re supposed to sympathise with her but I just couldn’t.
The book will be published by Orion on 24th March and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.