Quick Review: THE SAND MEN by Christopher Fowler (Solaris)

FowlerC-SandMenAn interesting, slow-burn mystery in Dubai

In Dubai there’s a new world of high-luxury resorts emerging for the super-rich – but at what price to everyone else?

Lea, Roy and their 15 year-old daughter Cara live in a gated community reserved for foreign workers. Roy has been hired to deal with teething problems at Dream World, a futuristic beach complex. In the oppressive heat, the wives appear happy to follow behind their husbands, cooking and arranging tea parties, but Lea finds herself a virtual prisoner in a land where Western women are regarded with indifference and suspicion.

At least there are a few friendly outsiders who don’t enjoy the conformity of the ex-pat community — until one night, when the most outspoken one dies in a suspicious accident. It’s the first in a string of terrible occurrences that divide the foreign workers. Lea’s neighbours start to blame migrants, locals and even each other.

Lea is convinced that deliberate acts of cruelty are being committed – but is there a real threat to her life, or is she becoming paranoid? And what if the thing she fears most is really happening? What happens in a world where only the rich are important? Welcome to a future that’s five minutes away, where rebellion against conformity can lead to the unthinkable…

This is the first of Christopher Fowler’s novels that I’ve read, and I must say I rather enjoyed it. The Sand Men wasn’t quite what I’d expected: in good ways, and one I thought could have been expanded upon.

First off, I expected something more SFF — this was a rather narrow-minded expectation of mine, because the novel is published by Solaris, who usually publish SFF. The Sand Men is a thriller. Focussing on the impressive growth of Dubai, Fowler uses his story to comment on the social and economic impact this development has had: from the environmental impact, to the plight of migrant workers who come to Dubai to work on the massive construction projects. It is a novel that marvels and shudders at the achievements and impact of globalization.

At heart, the novel revolves around an ancient conspiracy. However, this aspect of the novel took shape very late in the story, and ended up feeling a little half-baked. There’s a lot of set-up, peppered with hints for things that are to come front-and-centre, but by the time the conspiracy is uncovered and articulated, there’s not much space left to fully flesh it out. This did, unfortunately, diminish the novel’s impact somewhat. That being said, the rest of the novel is very well-written and also engaging: I was never bored, despite the relatively low-action and slow-burn nature of the story. The characters are realistic and well-drawn, their interaction natural and realistic. Even the stranger events felt well-done, and as the number of “accidents” in the expat community rises, and Lea’s paranoia rises, Fowler kept the novel within bounds — it never felt forced or ridiculous.

Fowler pulls back the curtain on the expatriate life in Dubai, the deadening boredom that can effect spouses living in closed communities; he also presents an unvarnished account of the lives of migrant workers, and the challenges they face and the brutal work environments they are subjected to (not to mention the harsh punishments should they step even slightly out of line).

In the end, while I was disappointed that the conspiracy wasn’t more developed, I nevertheless enjoyed reading The Sand Men. I hope to read more by Fowler in the near future. Recommended if you’re looking for something a little different, in one of the world’s most fascinating city-states.

*

Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men is published by Solaris Books on October 6th, 2015.

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