Nelida Pinon: Voices of the Desert

by Rachel Baker on August 31, 2009

Voices of the Desert is sort of a spinoff of One Thousand and One Nights.  The central character is (supposed to be) Scheherazade, who was the young bride who volunteered to marry the Persian King who’d begun to execute his virgin wives after the first night of sex.  If you will remember, the Caliph found his wife in bed with a servant and the horrid details of what he saw haunt his memory.  Rather than ever feeling this way again, he just executed his wives early on in the relationship.

I was originally excited to read Voices of the Desert. I thought it would be interesting to read a re-working of a vintage tale about the lowly bride rather than the powerful Caliph.  I wanted to see if Scheherazade had the strength to be an empowered role model for her real life modern counterparts, just beginning to truly have equal rights of their own.  I think I expected and wanted too much.  Maybe I expected some sort of political statement on the rights of women in that area of the world in the form of an old story?

What I got was nothing of the sort.  Voices of the Desert seems like the longest book I’ve ever read and its less than 300 pages. The novel, while using Scheherazade as the central character, actually told the story of the changes the Caliph went through every day after hearing his new bride tell him stories.  He waffled between executing her or letting her live. He gradually healed from the sordid affair he witnessed between his wife and a slave. Was Scheherazade the reason or was it her stories?  Did her stories allow him to imagine a less boring life than being Caliph?  Did Scheherazade enchant him into caring for her and allowing her to live?

Who knows.  I kept thinking to myself there’s got to be something other than the stories Scheherazade was telling driving this book.  But no.  With each passing chapter (there’s 64), my eyes glazed over more and more; almost to the point I missed her sister and their slave deciding they’d take care of the Caliph’s needs so Scheherazade could run away to the desert to be with the woman slave whom the girls’ father had freed.

I felt cheated after spending several weeks on a book that should have taken me a few hours to get through. I felt Scheherazade was extremely flat (her sister, Dinazarda, had more depth; as did the slave, Jasmine).  I think, possibly, the empowerment I was looking for was in Dinazarda and Jasmine, rather than Scheherazade. However, the way the story flowed, I missed that possibility until the very end – at which point I have been too jaded to put too much thought into those particular characters. If it hadn’t been for Scheherazade, though, neither of them would have gotten the opportunities they had at the end. Maybe someone else will write a review of the book focusing on this possibility – it probably has a lot of merit.

I usually try to add to a review who might be interested in the book, even if I didn’t like it.  This particular book – well, I’m not really sure. I would definitely be interested in reading raving reviews of Voices of the Desert.

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