The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler
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 …
The modern Middle East is a melting pot of cultures and ideas; the old and the new are in constant battle with one another as the region is continually attempts to reinvent itself. Christopher Fowler uses this state of flux as the basis for his latest work. Technology and Western consumerism are taking hold in an area of the world where history and tradition have long held sway. Everything is shiny and new. The culture seems welcoming and progressive, but beneath the wafer thin veneer of futurist civility lurks something disturbing. Just exactly who are the Sand Men, and what is it that they want?
Into this newly forming chaotic, capitalist haven comes a typical 21st century family. The majority of the narrative follows Lea as she tries to adapt to her new life. The stark differences between London and the Middle East feel almost palpable. There are a host of new rules to understand and scores of societal conventions that must be observed. In many respects, Dubai is a complete anathema to Lea. Watching her efforts as she initially attempts to conform are fascinating. At first glance, everything appears to be perfect. Great family, great home, positive prospects but the more you read the more you realise that much of this perfection is superficial at best.
The changes are no less subtle in Roy and Cara. Roy embraces the corporate lifestyle with relish and swiftly becomes someone almost unrecognisable to the rest of his family. The lifestyle they have found themselves part of seems so far removed from the norm it is almost like a living dream. His job is all about achieving perfection, irrespective of the cost, and he becomes completely obsessed about hitting this target. Meanwhile, ignored by both parents, Cara drifts away from the rest of the family and bonds with other ex-pat teens. Her hopes of a new life quickly sours, and she is drawn to an unexpected outlet for her teenage angst.
For all three, Dubai initially appears to be the affluent playground of their dreams, but as we all know appearances can often be deceptive.
The Sand Men manages the trickiest of tasks with aplomb. Tackling potentially contentious issues like the gender gap, religious intolerance and the rise of rampant consumerism with a delicate touch. Part character study and part social commentary the engrossing plot explores the nature of family dynamics while picking apart how modern life seems designed to break the family unit up into its component pieces.
Underneath all this insight, there is a delightfully sinister undercurrent that flows throughout the entire narrative. Is Lea suffering from some form of mental illness, are all her problems imagined, or is there someone or something external who is ultimately responsible? Fowler keeps the reader guessing and each new chapter ramps up the sense of tension inch by inch.
There is nothing bombastic or overt about the Sand Men. Like his previous work, Nyctophobia, this is an exercise in subtly. This novel is a template for how good psychological horror should be. That growing feeling of unease, about recognising how uncomfortable we are made by the unfamiliar. The acknowledgement of the dread that can occur in our own existence. This is a novel about that moment of realisation, that split second where you know a situation is inherently wrong but having to accept that you have come too far and there is not a damn thing that you can do about it.
Using his writing to put society under the microscope the author is trying to understand what it is that makes us all tick. Christopher Fowler once again delivers first class fiction that manages the enviable task of being entertaining, engrossing and thought provoking in a single stroke.
The Sand Men is published by Solaris and is available now. Highly recommended.