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Book Review: The Far Side of the Desert

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a new voice for me, and I wish I had met up with her fiction earlier. Her latest novel The Far Side of the Desert shows what I may have been missing: an engaging storyteller who moves confidently in exotic climes (she’s vice president of PEN International); an informed observer of geo-politics who creates real-world adventure; and a narrator who knows how to generate suspense and avoid clichés. She’s also shrewd enough to leave some domestic and political complications unresolved, as they often are in life.

The opening dateline is July 2007, but The Far Side of the Desert couldn’t be more timely: a thriller involving hostage taking, terrorism, financial fraud, espionage, arms trafficking, murder, rape, drugs, all set in areas of the world the author seems to know well. She gives major heroic roles to two women who, for all their passion, privilege, and intelligence prove admirable mainly because of their courage to take risks and willingness to confront their own faults and shortcomings.

Anne Montgomery Waters, called Monte, and her older sister Samantha and brother Cal, are children of a powerful Washington D.C. political family. Though well connected, the young adults have made their own way – Samantha, unmarried, as a top reporter for major media, Monte, a talented linguist in a top-tier diplomatic position, traveling a lot even though she’s married with two small children; and Cal, a journalist, going through a divorce but loving his journalistic work. Samantha is still mourning the loss of her investigative reporter partner, killed in Afghanistan. Monte’s husband is supportive of her work but increasingly frustrated. The relationship is unsteady.

Restless, she and Samantha have gone to Galicia in Spain to participate in a folk festival held at a medieval city in the northwest. Samantha is particularly eager to continue her inquiry into big-time drug trafficking and money funneled to Hamas, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah.

Monte’s connections to Washington are more direct. Monte and Sam, usually on the alert for action, miss what’s coming. In the middle of the costumed festival, a bomb goes off and in the process of trying to hide out, Monte goes missing. There was this attractive English-speaking Spanish/ Arabic man, Stephen, a.k.a. Safi, whom they saw in their hotel. And he’s suddenly on hand to guide Monte to safety, or so he said.

In that medieval city, there are no embassies or consulates and Monte goes off the grid. She has been taken by Safi to the remotest part of The Sahara as a prisoner on instructions from The Elder, a brutal, mysterious, Islamic extremist. She is continually raped by him and a guard and eventually becomes pregnant.

Leedom-Ackerman spares no detail. Though state-department training helps her keep somewhat sane and pregnancy ensures temporary survival, she is destined for death. Her abductor, however, Safi, begins to regret his part in the Elder’s terrorist schemes and becomes a friend to Monte, his intellectual equal with whom he enjoys debates and then, making love. An older Arabic woman, obviously meant to watch over Monte, also becomes her ally in an attempt to flee with Safi and make it across one of the most challenging landscapes in the world.

Samantha, with Cal’s help, is determined to find her sister, but the story rises above Indiana Jones adventure. It broadens and deepens into an indictment of America as an arms merchant of the world with Britain and France as well, complicit in money laundering and turning a blind eye to drug-related crime. It also contains a realistic look at sustained marriage, having children, sibling rivalry, and affection borne in despair. The Far Aside of the Desert is, in short, a moving novel about the far side of Humanity.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.