Of Sea and Sand
By Denyse Woods, American University in Cairo Press,
304 pages, $17
If I use one word to describe Of Sea and Sand, Denyse Wood’s sixth novel, it would be: unusual. Not because it deals with the supernatural; a ton of novels fall into that category. But due to the fact that the interactions between her protagonist and the supernatural being come across as vaguely believable. Mundane even. And also because vampires and demons are not her thing. The supernatural in this case is the jinn.
Irishman Gabriel Sherlock arrives in Oman in 1982 to stay with his sister, fleeing shame and disaster back home. A gifted pianist, he has committed a fairly shocking crime, against his own brother. There are enticing allusions to it throughout the first half of the book, but the reader is none the cleverer about what exactly Gabriel has done. It is only towards the end that we come to know, and his crime comes across as rather strange and certainly very callous.
His sister, despite being bitter about what has transpired in their family, accommodates him, and his brother-in-law pulls some strings to get Gabriel a job.
Gabriel steadily falls in love with Oman, seeing it as a refuge from his past. He begins an intense affair with a woman whom no one else has seen. People around him insist she must be a jinn but Gabriel refuses to believe this version of the truth, despite the fact that his lover appears never to eat any food, and disappears for good without explanation.
While Gabriel is in Oman, Thea Kerrigan, also Irish, lands a job in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, at a time when the country is the midst of the brutal and futile eight-year war with Iran. Just as she is settling into her well-paid clerical job, she falls in love with the Indian manager of the hotel her company has housed her in. He has lived his life primarily in Oman. Both have strong feelings for each other, but the fact that he is married with three children comes in the way of the romance. An unexplained illness eventually leads Thea back to Ireland, where she gets married and gives birth to two children.
Fast forward 26 years, and Thea lands in Muscat, chasing her own ghosts from the past. Gabriel, who jointly owns a tourism company and often doubles as a tour guide, approaches Thea, believing fully that she is his old lover. Initially dismissive, and despite being certain that they have never met before, Thea is still drawn to the stranger and the rumours that surround him. And thus begins a mind-bending journey in which reality and fantasy get intertwined.
Denyse Woods, who sometimes writes as Denyse Devlin, is an Irish novelist based in Cork. Her writing style is formal, descriptive and straightforward. What shines through in her book is her love for the region, especially Oman. In an interview with the Times of Oman, Woods noted: “By setting stories in the Middle East, I try, in my own very small way, to allow readers to look beyond news headlines and see the wealth of the people and places right across the Arab world.”
Her description of the Sultanate — its people, its wadis, its mountains, and its desert — give the novel a strong sense of location. The novel is divided into four parts, three of which are set in Oman and one in Iraq, with a splattering of Ireland throughout.