Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Tea at the Grand Tazi

Alexandra Singer is a new Manchester-based writer with a remarkable story of her own - in 2008 when she was just twenty five, she suffered a near fatal neurological illness that left her in a coma for three months, and she was then told she would never walk again. While she was in hospital her brother found the manuscript of a novel she'd written - but had little memory of. Her story has a happy ending: tomorrow (March 1st) Tea at the Grand Tazi is published by Legend Press - and Alexandra is on the road to recovery.

Best of all, her novel is great...
     It starts as Maia, an artist from London, arrives to take up a new job in Marrakesh as the assistant to a renowned historian. She is leaving behind a broken love affair and wants to start again. But from the get go, the mysterious tone hints that this isn't going to be another feelgood account of a woman finding fulfilment as she travels abroad alone.  Like other women travellers in recent literature (think Shirley Valentine), Maia has a love affair, and discovers some truths about herself. But there any similarities to a genre I will call 'self discovery on holiday lit' must end.

How's this for an opening sentence? "Following completion of the act of love, many men had disappointed Maia by conducting their own battle in the war against Venus." The tone is dark, threatening even, and (I mean this as a compliment) intellectual. Eat Pray Love it ain't. This story is much darker and certainly more shocking. It's the dark underbelly of those holiday narratives. It answers the uncomfortable question: what would happen if the characters you encountered weren't helpful or attractive or comic? What if you got in with a bad crowd? What if your experiences were actually damaging?

Without giving away too much, Maia's new life in Marrakech revolves around a seedy hotel (the eponymous Grand Tazi) and the crowd of 'lowlife' expats who frequent it. Maia's historian employer is shady; his friends worse, but Maia knows no one else, and as a white Western woman she isn't going to meet anyone either. The story it most reminded me of was Paul Bowles' eery classic A Distant Episode, in which a renowned professor of linguistics takes some seriously wrong turns in the North African desert, and ends up utterly alone, stripped of all human dignity, of everything that previously marked him out as a human being.

The narrative style is also extraordinary: Singer mainly uses a deeply interior point of view, with sparse visual details, and studded with some remarkably well written dialogue.

This novel conjures up a sense of isolation and otherness in the face of a different country and culture - things that have dropped slightly out of literary fashion right now. But Alexandra Singer may well single-handedly have put alienation back on the map. I heartily recommend this book, and look forward to whatever she writes next.

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