A drama about love, friendship, and obsession, Denyse Woods’s romantic contemporary novel, Like Nowhere Else, examines belonging and boundaries through the lens of a woman who has lost her course. Set in Yemen and Ireland and drawing subtle parallels between them, Like Nowhere Else delivers an alternative take on a country long subjected to overwhelmingly negative media attention. The destination of the heroine’s lifelong dreams, Yemen exerts a pull on her that further complicates an impulsive love affair, pushing her into choices she isn’t ready to make. Crisp, slightly quirky, and sincere, the novel got off to an enjoyable start for me with an airport transit hall encounter that demonstrates the author’s facility for dynamic dialogue. Although the heroine’s clueless shilly-shallying tested my patience and the rest of the story never quite maintained the wit and bounce of its beginning, the character dilemmas engaged my sympathy and kept me interested to the end.
Circa 2002. To Irishwoman Vivien Quish, Yemen is a repository of dreams but also of broken aspirations. Once a wannabe adventurer, she is now an art gallery manager whose travelling is crippled by a fear of the unknown.
She is shocked when she runs into Christian Linklater, an English anthropologist and travel programme presenter whom she has a secret reason to avoid. Temporarily working in Yemen, he seems charming and strangely different from her expectations. Far away from her ordinary life it is all too easy be swept away by emotion, for a country, for a man. Only when she is unexpectedly joined by her friend, Gemma Colbert, does common sense take hold, forcing wrenching realisations as she tries to reconcile love and friendship.
But when Vivien’s three weeks’ holiday comes to a close and she returns to Ireland the consequences of her actions follow her. Truths begin to appear different than they did in Yemen, causing her to question what she thought she knew and where she belongs. As Christian and Gemma pull her in opposite directions, she stands to lose the spirit she renewed in Yemen. Yet one more journey awaits, the most important of her life.
Denyse Woods’s unadorned writing and the confessional nature of Vivien’s personal journey lend the storytelling a documentary immediacy. Supported by first person point of view (Vivien is the narrator) the prose has a directness and clarity that quickly connected me with the main characters, particularly through the crisp, distinctive dialogue. Descriptions are pencilled in as by a minimalist; sensory cues are scant. They tend to consist of sparely worded impressions that block out the general surrounding or flash on one or two specific details. Eventually the accumulated elements, like the plastic bag litter Vivien observes in Wadi Dhar or the chewing of qat, begin to build up a more layered atmosphere, helping to distinguish the landscape and people as specifically Yemeni versus “Middle Eastern”.
The novel presents a non-judgmental perspective on Yemen. Vivien arrives there during a time of international unease but prior to renewal of explosive events, and the fears that have kept tourists away from a country that has thrown its doors open to them are gently mocked. The Irish heroine’s familiarity with how a troubled country is viewed by outsiders and how those perceptions differ from the everyday eperiences of those who actually live there lends weight to her empathetic point-of-view and paves the way for perceptive comparisons. (Denyse Woods – who also writes as Denyse Devlin – herself lives in Ireland and is a self-professed lover of Yemen, which she has visited at least twice.) For the majority of the story, regional politics are cautiously skirted as something distant and vaguely detrimental to the health and consciences of Westerners – a pro-Palestinian demonstration in which Vivien inadvertently gets swept up being a case in point – but in the last section of the book international developments are directly exploited for the narrative climax, briefly moving politics to the forefront in a manner that satirises expectations bred on fat headlines.
Thus, while socio-political topics are hinted at they are generally kept in the background. Like Nowhere Else firmly remains light fiction and thus is not the story for those wishing to dig deep into complex truths. Much travel literature, both fiction and non-fiction, dwells on the beautiful and the quaint; I assume most of us have seen photos that make poverty look aesthetic. This novel’s Yemen is no exception, very much an Arabia Felix. It is easily likeable but undeniably two-dimensional: principally a destination for romantic sightseeing and self-fulfilment. The descriptions often represent an idea fixed in Vivien’s mind – a remembered anecdote by one of the foreign travel writers she admires, for instance – rather the contemporary reality of a place. To the author’s credit, once Vivien has returned to Ireland (just over halfway through the story) she is the first to acknowledge that her impressions were those of a holidaymaker who has “only skimmed the surface” (p. 235) and that anything deeper remains to be learned and experienced. This realisation is the root of the friction in the rest of the story.
Since this is women’s fiction I had, however, hoped for more from the representation of the Yemeni women Vivien learns to know. Unlike the nuanced individualism of Vivien, her friend Gemma, and Christian’s ex-wife Diane, local Nooria and her compatriots are treated to a homogenous group portrayal that is as promotional as a puff piece. They come from the same slice of society and to a woman are cheery, well-adjusted, driven, inclusive, articulate, and informed. A school-room didacticism permeates their scenes. As in the notes made of Yemeni hospitality to strangers and the proud confidence of the population in themselves, brought forward in a way that appears to diminish the meaningfulness of statistics, the narrative’s intention appears to be to challenge impressions about Yemen and its people formed by newspieces and publications that foster bigotry and ignorance by selective reporting, sensationalising differences, and inflating exceptions1. Like Nowhere Else sets up the contrast of reality as personified by the everyday women and girls whose opinions and actions defy popular media images of female disempowerment.
But debilitating these characters with an absence of complexity that would illuminate their individual selves, their inner lives, seems to be missing the point. Mouthpieces have a hard time stimulating emotional connections that open avenues to understanding. Does the average reader really need to be told that women in Yemen are as intelligent, capable, and passionate as anywhere else (if the answer was yes, it is to be hoped that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Yemeni activist Tawakkol (Tawakul) Karman encouraged reassessment), or that the deprived tend to grasp at opportunities to improve their lot with an enthusiasm and a gratitude that puts the complacency and complaints of the privileged to cringing shame? Why not invite reader engagement by showing the strategies these women have worked out to deal with the problems and challenges of their specific circumstances, or the unique advantages and solutions that their backgrounds and perspectives enable them to bring to the table?
On to the main character. Vivien’s conflicts are vividly drawn. Lightly neurotic, a bit lost, and possessed of an instinct to flee, she is a waif who longs to be a free spirit (her heroines are Freya Stark and Doreen Ingrams). Unfortunately for her, she tried to spread her wings before she was ready and her life since has been defined by that failure. Fear of facing up to past defeat has shrunk her travelling to what is familiar, safe, and comfortable, but it has also held hostage her longing to follow in the footsteps of her idols, the adventurers and travel-writers who explored Yemen, a country that has called out to her since she first saw pictures of its mud cities in her childhood.
In common with much of the genre fiction that centres on women’s issues, Like Nowhere Else is about the heroine’s journey of self-rediscovery. The first-person point of view of such intimate, character-driven stories means that if the reader cannot connect with the narrator’s personality she may find herself cornered as by an exasperating acquaintance. I think that first person POV heroines of plot-driven books have an advantage that to some extent protects them, and as a result readers, from what can seem like self-indulgent introspection: when they fall into self-pity the requirement for external action at least intermittently forces them to snap out of self-absorption.
The fits-and-starts plot of the emotion-driven Like Nowhere Else does not demand this of Vivien Quish. Her character is so focussed on her own troubles that she remains severely myopic in the company of others. Apart from Christian, Gemma (Vivien’s oldest friend), and Christian’s ex-wife, Diane, the reader learns surprisingly little about the characters who interact with Vivien.We are shown only the parts of them that directly reflect Vivien back to us. For example, mellow Dutch cartographer Theo Klaassens is a prominent secondary character whose only narrative function seems to be to act as a human confessional booth for Vivien. We know virtually nothing about him beyond his nationality, relationship status, and profession (illustrated by his constant fiddling with a GPS). Vivien’s self-absorption also affected my relation to the story’s physical surroundings: somehow I felt too distanced for the sort of immersion that truly transports. Too often I felt relegated to watching Vivien act enthralled over some scenery instead of sharing her feelings of wonder and awe. Her responses to the settings are far more clearly etched than the places themselves, and this turned her into a wall between me and the setting, instead of a bridge.
This may sound as if I found Vivien unlikeable when in fact I empathised with her more often than not. She seems naïve and searching, not purposely selfish, and I began by admiring how acutely insightful the author’s portrayal of her inner conflicts are. Paradoxically, once Vivien’s connection with Yemen grows stronger than past trauma and she begins to re-evaluate her life path, there came a point at which I began to understand her behaviour less and less. There are times when one can only understand a person or a character by applying emotion; rational logic will not do. I am afraid my ability to cope with Vivien’s indecisive behaviour eventually dried up. Her incessant changes of mind and switches between trust and distrust gave me whiplash.
Christian Linklater’s portrayal succeeds in building layers of intrigue. As bits and pieces Vivien did not know about him emerge into light he grows from an interesting puzzle into perhaps the most rewarding character in the book. The revelations are skilfully handled and constituted the most entertaining part of the book for me. He surprised me and I liked that. Because his character has been so well-established, however, I found the book’s frantic climax transparent, which of course ruined the suspense. Saying more about it and Christian would spoil things, because a good part of the reading consists of figuring out whether he is decent, deplorable, or problematically flawed.
In fact, the success of the book’s main conflict hinges on who the reader believes is fooling whom, and whether more than one person is engaged in deception. Vivien, far from innocent herself, is in a state of constant confusion, being unable to decide whom to trust, if anyone. I found her interpretations incredibly silly and her judgment appallingly poor, but in her defence she has a history that explains her bias. Still, I experienced tedium because I felt ahead of the plot, drumming my fingers while waiting for Vivien to figure out the obvious. I also found it hard to accept her prolonged unwillingness to act at all after the evidence had grown incontrovertible and her passiveness was causing pain to an injured party.
The tensions in the book’s principal relationships stem from transgressions, misunderstandings, and crossed purposes. Tangles that have been slightly loosened are repeatedly retightened, never fully straightened out, which meant that three pages from the end I did not know who felt more frustrated, I or the characters. It must be said that the way the author intertwines the various relationships between friends, ex-friends, lovers, and ex-lovers mines the messiness of human emotions very realistically. However, in a work of this genre – light women’s fiction – I do expect major baggage to be sorted out sooner and more satisfactorily than it was here. Although the ending brings Vivien’s quest full circle and her choices made narrative sense, I was missing the evidence that she had wisened, that she felt as much compassionate understanding as she demanded. Without the final sentence of the book, which touched me with the meaningfulness of its poetry, the last chapter would have lacked emotional resonance for me.
Finally, the author uses a number of ploys to manipulate readers, none of which sat well with me. For example, the source of Vivien’s secret knowledge about Christian is coyly withheld for a full third of the book, long enough for the teasers to strain my curiosity into acute irritation, only for the author to pull the storyline as we know it to a jarring stop and proceed to dump page after page of nonstop, belaboured backstory (about seventeen in all, they felt double the amount). An interlude that contains important information, it cannot be skipped by the reader and is a mood-breaker. It felt like having the pacing wheels stuck in a sand dune when all I wanted to do was get back to Yemen and the flow of plot. A second example is the use of narrative ellipses. At a few key points the author employs chapter endings like film fadeouts to mark the passing of time. The crux is that when the next chapter opens, not only has the scene changed but the configuration of the emotional landscape has also changed as a consequence of events that are not shown. These gaps are, I assume, intended to be meaningful, implying inevitability. To me they were clumsily handled and came across as another cheap trick to manufacture twists. The off-hand manner of a major revelation (p. 324) after one such fadeout came close to making me chuck the book over my shoulder.
But in the end, this was a story that kept me reading even when I felt irritation at the vacillating heroine and annoyance at smug storytelling techniques. On the whole, I was nicely enough entertained by the onion-peel character revelations, insightful dialogue, and journey to a country I hope more novelists will discover.
1Ironically, the only real-life, contemporary Yemeni who is named represents exactly the things the novel attempts to dismiss as not being what Yemen is about. The other famous person is Biblical: Bilqis, or the Queen of Sheba, whose legend outpaces the sources. Yemen is a front contender in efforts to determine her historical identity and home. Like Nowhere Else gives a tour of Yemeni antiquities associated with her.
(Penguin Ireland trade paperback, 2005, p.180-1)
“On the rim of a bend, I asked Fadhl for a photo stop. He beeped to alert the other vehicle and we pulled in. I got out, camera in hand., Theo beside me and Yemen all around. Everything loomed over me, graceful and patient. The solitary towers on the pinnacles, the mountains, even Theo. Where I had once been intimidated by this landscape, it seemed now to have eight arms to hold me. While I was in disarray, it was solid and still. Like a cat, sure of its charms, comforting if I would only reach out. There was arrogance in the way this country looked at me, from high windows in Sana’a, from the peaks of Jabal Nuqum and from the dwellings in these hills. No other country watches as Yemen does.
‘What is it about this place?’ I asked Theo. ‘Why do certain people feel a deep connection to a particular place? It’s almost like the chemistry between lovers.’
‘Maybe it dates from a previous life.’
‘Yeah, and maybe I’m Queen of Sheba.’
‘I have a Belgian friend who feels this way about Ireland. It holds her soul, she says, and there’s nothing she can do about it except return whenever possible.’
‘Come on,’ Gemma called from the car. She hadn’t even got out. We were on two entirely different journeys. I only wished we weren’t making them in the same vehicle.”
Novels of related interest: A more famous novel about Yemen is of course Salmon Fishing In The Yemen by Paul Torday. A film version was released in March this year featuring Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas; it is directed by Lasse Hallström (of Chocolat, The Shipping News, etc.). As yet, I have neither read the book nor seen the film. My favourite travel blog, A Traveler's Library, reviews the film here. Anyone hoping to experience a bit of Yemeni scenery through the film may be disappointed, though: the filming location for the non-British-Isles sequences was Morocco, a country 6000 km/3600 miles distant from Yemen. It is perhaps fair to note that when filming commenced in August 2010 Yemen was one of the countries headed toward the Arab Spring, although one may just as reasonably ponder why a story set in the southernmost part of the Arabian Peninsula should be filmed in northwest Africa.
Alternating between an Australian woman’s struggles as a student of Arabic in Yemen and her memories of a fraught relationship with her mother, a Vietnamese boat refugee, The City Of Sealions is a melancholy, grimly beautiful literary novel by Eva Sallis about disconnectedness and the discomfort and disconsolation of being an outsider. The sense of place is distinct and evocative, as is the description of being a stranger.
Among novels recreating the life of the Biblical Queen of Sheba is India Edghill’s Wisdom’s Daughter, in which the Queen carries the Yemeni appellation, Bilqis, and comes, if I understand correctly, from the area of present-day Yemen.
Non-fiction of related interest: Several travel writers associated with Yemen are quoted or otherwise mentioned in Like Nowhere Else. Some of Freya Stark’s travel writings are available online, including The Southern Gates Of Arabia: A Journey In The Hadhramaut (1936). An interview with her from 1977 can be read here. Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who resides in Yemen, even shows up, briefly, in person. His Yemen: Travels In Dictionary Land is reviewed by the British-Yemeni Society. Doreen Ingrams’s A Time In Arabia (1970) draws on her diaries and describes life in Ḥaḍramawt (Hadhramaut) in the 1930s and 1940s. Arabian Sands (1959, but reprinted many times) chronicles Wilfred Thesiger’s journeys in the largest sand desert on earth, the Rub' al Khali (The Empty Quarter). It is considered a travel literature classic.