Book review: Sandstorm ~ Henry Shukman


Henry Shukman, 2005

With its over-obvious title and gushing back cover reviews of the author’s previous book, Sandstorm looked promising. It’s the tale of Mortimer, a once lauded war correspondent now down on his luck, banging out restaurant reviews. Then one morning in a New York bar he reads an obituary to a French photo journalist, the beautiful Celeste Dumas (has there ever been a butt-ugly French photo journalist?). Flashback: Algeria 1976 and their shared adventure and fleeting romance as they broke the news of a Tuareg uprising – a story which launched Mortimer’s international career (but not their romance, to his everlasting regret). A defining event much later in the same country brings about his professional downfall.

The start offers some suspense as the lovers head south into the desert on the trail of this great scoop. We soon tick off the obligatory “water… water…” scenario in the dunes – but then the actual event which was set to explode on the world’s front pages passes by before you notice. I had to flick back, convinced that some pages were missing. From that point it was difficult to empathise with Mortimer’s dire need to wire in his groundbreaking story (the feeble ‘foreign-oil-company-funds-Tuareg-fight-for-homeland-in-return-for-oil-rights strand might have been pinched off Cussler himself). In the meantime Celeste’s uncertain feelings for Mort are hinted at, as well as her ambivalence towards their seemingly glamourous and important work. After surviving a near-drowning off the western Saharan coast, Mortimer sets his sights for fame and glory, but can’t persuade the still-traumatised Celeste to join him – she just wants to go back home to photograph lambs.

Flash forward 18 years (not 15 as the jacket on my copy said) and Pulitzer-prize winning Mort finds himself back in Algiers covering some riots, but the ‘great error of his professional life’ is another feebly shallow scenario cooked up off the cuff.

We hear that Shukman is an award-winning poet and this novel was expanded from a short story, but Sandstorm seems hampered by its ‘luvey’ literary genre; the low-brow adventure element doesn’t marry with lovelorn Mortimer’s supposed cynicism and subsequent moral failure. It’s telling of the author’s poor grasp of the region, its people and history, that in his book the newspapers describe the revolt as “the most romantic war of the half-century”. Has any 20th-century conflict ever been described so? The reasoning behind the displacement of real Algerian place names is also unclear (one assumes the action is happening around real-life Tindouf, miles from Tuareg country), and the muddling of real historical events is confusing – though maybe only to those who know of them. The location of the real Saharawi wars of the Western Sahara in the 1970s becomes a more bibliogenic Tuareg rebellion which never happened (at least not for another 15 years, and then in Niger and Mali). The desert is rendered with more purple than a bishop at a Prince gig and one has to ask, is the renaming of the real Rio de Oro as ‘Rio Camellio’ a joke – and how long did it take to cook up ‘Food International’ as an aid agency name? About as long as the ‘great error of his professional life’.

I am sorry to report that Sandstorm turns out as lame as a three-legged camellio with concussion.

Guardian review