Tea at the Grand Tazi by Alexandra Singer
|Tea at the Grand Tazi by Alexandra Singer|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Andy Lancaster|
|Summary: The fascinating decadence of those African countries just outside Europe, Tunisia, Morocco and so on, has been captured by numerous works of fiction, but Alexandra Singer's debut novel charts this familiar territory from a contemporary feminine perspective. This tale of her heroine Maia's descent into vice and subjection explores both the clash of cultures and of gender in the torpid heat of North Africa.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: March 2012|
|Publisher: Legend Press|
Seeking solitude, peace to paint, and solace from a failed relationship, Maia finds a job assisting the Historian, a shadowy academic, in return for life in the centre of Marrakesh. And with her duties light, she sets off to explore her surroundings, attempting to examine the women in this culture. But as a European female she is treated as an item of sexual prey by the men, and ostracised by the women, so she finds herself isolated and alone.
Through this simple framework, Singer captures initially the isolation of a European woman alone in this society, objectified and treated as purely a sexual object by the males around her, who dominate the street scenes and cafes of the souk. In her attempt to find some outdoor life in this constrained society she stumbles upon the Grand Tazi Hotel of the title, a small, seedy oasis of mixed company in this male dominated world. And it is here that she has what initially appear to be safe, yet we realise become increasingly dangerous encounters with locals and travellers, especially Armand, a mysteriously enigmatic but attractive French Moroccan.
Singer's narration does capture some of the pressures and contradictions of this situation. In part she creates a mystery where the intentions of the key players, the Historian, Armand and even the hotel owner Mahmoud are always doubtful, never clear to Maia. What are their true intentions towards her? And in this increasing tale of increasing tension Singer also creates a novel exploring Maia's own sense of female identity, through the stark contrasts of values presented through her Western feminism and the Arab male mores, and through her attempts to paint Moroccan women.
Ultimately, although Maia does create her paintings, they are mostly women seen from a distance, from the rooftops, peeking at their lives from a distance rather than close to. And if the novel has a weakness, it is a similar sense of distance and observation which means I never completely engaged with Maia. No matter how much I am told of her fearful infatuation, her powerlessness in the face of what is so obviously exploitative and dangerous, I find it hard to identify with. However, the threatening nature of the Moroccan culture does come across powerfully.
There is a clear structure here and a good sense of atmosphere, and an even clearer intent to explore issues. What is created most strongly for me is the heat, the confusion and the seedy nature of both surroundings and tourists. This is more ambitious than merely a travel novel though, for it attempts to tackle some complex interwoven issues. Singer uses the clash of cultures to create more than a mystery, and in fact more than a novel of growing up. She especially explores how isolation and alienation can lead to dependence and corruption, something very currently an issue with young women in certain British towns today.
For an 'inside' exploration of womanhood in the post-Arab spring world, I would recommend Sarmada by Fadi Azzam which complements this rather 'outsider' view. But to move away from the fictional, The Arab Spring, edited by Tony Manhire, is an exploration of many aspects of the realities of change in Arab societies now through the eyes of Guardian journalists.
You can read more book reviews or buy Tea at the Grand Tazi by Alexandra Singer at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Tea at the Grand Tazi by Alexandra Singer at Amazon.com.
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