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Rowan Somerville: The End Of Sleep

The mere mention of Cairo conjures up a collage of images to me – of an aged city caught in the shadow of the Pyramids; of a twisted network of alleyways surrounded by a desert expanse; of bazaars, camels, and kebabs. It’s stereotypical and unrepresentative of the city as a whole, but having never had the pleasure I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining this far off place as a city of history, mystery, and wonder.

It is thanks, then, to Rowan Somerville and his debut novel, The End Of Sleep (2008), that the tourist board of Cairo can sing Allah be praised, even if the book does revolve around the story of a skinhead and feature gangsters. And that’s not even bothering to mention the alchoholic Irishman – okay, no more stereotypes! – as its protagonist.

Said Irishman is Fin, the senior reporter on the Cairo Herald, the second-largest English language newspaper in Egypt. Although he has been there for three years, his position isn’t all that important – there are no junior reporters – and the job has never really delivered upon his expectations:

He’d hoped there would be meetings in the shadowy corners of souks. He’d hoped there would be smoking of hand-rolled oval cigarettes and the wearing of crumpled linen suits. He’d hoped there would be the tapping out of stories-that-mattered on shiny black typewriters late into the night. He was always typing in these fantasies. Typing, wearing linen suits and smoking. Not that he owned a typewriter, or even smoked cigarettes.

Now, having fallen somewhat to the bottle these last six months, Fin has found himself out of a job for fighting in a bar and has little left in life – scant money, no family, and the dawning realisation that life is not “the glorious movie of his imagination.” So when he hears his friend Farouk mention the story of Skinhead Saïd and what he found in his basement, it seems like the perfect story to kickstart his life, especially when there may be trinkets and treasures involved.

Farouk’s take on storytelling is different to that of Fin, highlighting the differences between the two men’s cultures, and Somerville slips the slightest hint of metafiction in:

Things were too slow, already too slow. He was a sophisticated Westerner, he reminded himself. His life should be a pacy linear narrative with obvious and satisfying climaxes.

The End Of Sleep does start slow and, the odd comic scene aside, lets its story build up gradually, intermingling the serious nature of life in Cairo with more madcap escapades. And it’s to this end that Somerville’s tale echoes the style of his character, Farouk, whose culture of storytelling is informed by the journey rather than the revelation:

Farouk was not one to be led along linear narrative lines, or led at all. He would reveal details randomly, the way fragments of antiquity might appear over time, scattered over a vast area, tantalising generations of archaeologists.

What’s most striking about The End Of Sleep is not the story but the sheer indulgence in Cairene culture. While Fin leads the story, the city is certainly more loveable, and Somerville writes with a desire to show beyond standard postcard snapshots, whether it be in the hub:

Cairo was on the surface a city of filth, chaos and ruins. But to those who were able to sink into it, Cairo was al-Kahira – the Triumphant, teeming with people, ebullient, enveloped in the past, kinetic, yielding, collapsing and constantly rebuilding itself out of the debris. With its alleyways and courtyards, its ruins built on ruins, Cairo was a city of nooks and passages, a place which seemed to promise the possibility, perhaps even deliverance, would be waitinground the next corner.

Or taking a step back and enjoying the old with the new:

Even in landscape Cairo was not dominated by pyramids but by the curved domes and minarets of the city’s mosques, which rose in spirals, tapers, smooth curves and perfect octagons and were sandwiched between garish advertising hoardings and high-rises of cracking concrete.

And no culture would be complete without a mention of its food, and Somerville, like Fin, obviously knows that of Cairo, for the novel is a palimpsest of flavours and spices, with regular mentions of olive-wood smoked baba ganoush, succulent wads of warm pitta and kebabs (“spicy, luscious, tender  and suffused with thyme”) that one taste would demand a halal-lujah! It’s certainly a far cry from the tourist tea (“a chipped teacup and a dusty tea bag floating in a bath of warm water”) offered near the beginning.

While it’s conclusion is not earth-shattering, The End Of Sleep owes much to the Arabic culture it’s steeped in, preferring to linger more on the journey, and its arabesque narrative, lazily meandering through the day, soon takes control holds on through a crazy, if sometimes conveniently plotted, day-in-the-life story peopled with larger-than-life characters, and like a certain taxi driver (‘You should visit Alexandria, the most beautiful beaches in the world. I will take you there now.’) shows off the best and worst of a city with obvious admiration.

July 10, 2008

11 responses to Rowan Somerville: The End Of Sleep

  1. Beth said:

    I think I’ll try to get this one for the mention of Arabic foods if nothing else. The seasoned lamb, the olive and olive wood smoke, always very filling. It sounds like a very sensuous tale. Lovely cover of the UK edition as well.

  2. Stewart said:

    Yes, Beth. The cover is nice and, having just seen the American cover, I’m left to wonder what they were thinking. Sand dunes and a sheep! At least the UK edition has a horse on it, which is relevant to the story, tucked into the top-right.

  3. rowan said:

    Hi Stewart & Beth

    thought I’d comment on this since I’m reading it (when I should be writing the next one). The US cover does indeed have a sheep on it and I thought the same thing “lamb in the desert…the end of sheep?” . Still, the illustrator suggested that it was a comment to the kebab element of the plot…well …erm …at least it made me smile . I find it fascinating the different takes on covers.

    Hope you enjoy it Beth and thanks for the incisive comments Stewart.

    Rowan

  4. Stewart said:

    Still, the illustrator suggested that it was a comment to the kebab element of the plot…well …erm …at least it made me smile.

    It’s a pitta nonsense, if you ask me. Either way, you’re welcome. Thanks for popping by.

  5. Stewart said:

    The End Of Sleep is on the shortlist for the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award 2008.

  6. John Self said:

    …Is that the people who make radiators? Oh well, if the owners of Iceland (the Katona-tinged shop, not the bankrupt nation) can get their name on a literary prize, why not?

  7. Stewart said:

    It is indeed the makers of radiators. The award is in association with the Irish Writers’ Centre. I hadn’t heard of the prize myself, but a link came in from here, linking to this review. So off I went to investigate…

  8. rowan said:

    Well thanks again Stewart, I’m on the shortlist and I was wondering what they do ?

    many thanks again for the review

    rowan

  9. rowan said:

    Hey Peeps, in India writing the next one. Didnt win the radiator prize but there you go.

    Best wishes

    Rowan

  10. Stewart said:

    Well, not to worry about the radiator prize, eh? I just found out you were on the shortlist for the Europe/South Asia Best First Book section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Good luck.

  11. adeline street said:

    I am enjoying The End of Sleep. Are you related to Edith Somerville who lived at Drishane, Castletownshend and who wrote novels with her cousin Violet Martin? And how do you like living at Castletownshend? It must be a great change from West London. Beautiful, of course, when the sun shines. I look forward to your next novel.

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11 responses to Rowan Somerville: The End Of Sleep

  1. Beth said:

    I think I’ll try to get this one for the mention of Arabic foods if nothing else. The seasoned lamb, the olive and olive wood smoke, always very filling. It sounds like a very sensuous tale. Lovely cover of the UK edition as well.

  2. Stewart said:

    Yes, Beth. The cover is nice and, having just seen the American cover, I’m left to wonder what they were thinking. Sand dunes and a sheep! At least the UK edition has a horse on it, which is relevant to the story, tucked into the top-right.

  3. rowan said:

    Hi Stewart & Beth

    thought I’d comment on this since I’m reading it (when I should be writing the next one). The US cover does indeed have a sheep on it and I thought the same thing “lamb in the desert…the end of sheep?” . Still, the illustrator suggested that it was a comment to the kebab element of the plot…well …erm …at least it made me smile . I find it fascinating the different takes on covers.

    Hope you enjoy it Beth and thanks for the incisive comments Stewart.

    Rowan

  4. Stewart said:

    Still, the illustrator suggested that it was a comment to the kebab element of the plot…well …erm …at least it made me smile.

    It’s a pitta nonsense, if you ask me. Either way, you’re welcome. Thanks for popping by.

  5. Stewart said:

    The End Of Sleep is on the shortlist for the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award 2008.

  6. John Self said:

    …Is that the people who make radiators? Oh well, if the owners of Iceland (the Katona-tinged shop, not the bankrupt nation) can get their name on a literary prize, why not?

  7. Stewart said:

    It is indeed the makers of radiators. The award is in association with the Irish Writers’ Centre. I hadn’t heard of the prize myself, but a link came in from here, linking to this review. So off I went to investigate…

  8. rowan said:

    Well thanks again Stewart, I’m on the shortlist and I was wondering what they do ?

    many thanks again for the review

    rowan

  9. rowan said:

    Hey Peeps, in India writing the next one. Didnt win the radiator prize but there you go.

    Best wishes

    Rowan

  10. Stewart said:

    Well, not to worry about the radiator prize, eh? I just found out you were on the shortlist for the Europe/South Asia Best First Book section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Good luck.

  11. adeline street said:

    I am enjoying The End of Sleep. Are you related to Edith Somerville who lived at Drishane, Castletownshend and who wrote novels with her cousin Violet Martin? And how do you like living at Castletownshend? It must be a great change from West London. Beautiful, of course, when the sun shines. I look forward to your next novel.

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