The Sand Men
Author: Christopher Fowler
Page count: 334pp
Release date: 2015
reviewed by Chris Amies
Lea follows her husband Roy from Chiswick to Dubai, where Roy is working on a building project designed to bring in wealthy holidaymakers. With their 15-year-old daughter Cara they move to a gated community, where there is little for journalist Lea to actually do. Determined to write about things other than shopping and celebrity she begins to confront the nature of the place she must now call home. Sure enough, there have been mysterious deaths. People vanish.
If it sounds like something written by JG Ballard, the resemblance is intentional. Fowler has referred to this novel as his Ballard tribute and the epigraph is from Ballard’s “Super-Cannes.” If you wanted a symbol of first-world alienation this would be your first port of call: a wealthy elite rich on oil revenues, a servant class of expatriate experts, wives kept at home (because practically everyone is straight, and married), and a shadow army of underpaid workers mostly from India and the Philippines, whose lives and deaths are largely unreported – “the pleasures of the few, built on the burdens of the many”. It is possible that his protagonist is an unreliable narrator, finding a conspiracy where there isn’t one – but then if someone says ‘there is no conspiracy,’ is this because they are part of it? Or because there really isn’t one? The refrain “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” is aired at least once. That I didn’t buy her perception of the conspiracy (despite the suspiciously gendered nature – for the 21st century – of the project) doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, either. Appropriately, Dreamworld is already a white elephant, there is doubt that it will be completed or be a commercial success and it might exist “one day only as a memory,” the desert reclaiming it rather than the other way about.
‘The Sand Men’ reads like part JG Ballard, part Brave New World. Then there are the hints at a further darkness underlying: “there were dark corners here” and a need to appease the land. It could in fairness have done with a bit of editing – 46 missing people plus the three you already knew about is 49, not 46 – and the nature of the Sand Men is unexplored, deliberate ambiguity left at the end. In a way if he’d stuck closer to what actually goes on in the Middle East it might have come across as angrier, but would that necessarily be a good thing? This would bear comparison with Le Carre’s ‘Constant Gardener’ about the iniquities of drug companies in Africa, and Torday’s ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ which stitched up the venality of Western interests in the Gulf (the film however missed the point entirely). As it is ‘The Sand Men’ is a departure for Fowler who normally writes about London – and I suspect he will return there.