The stark contrast between its gleaming modernity and deep-rooted middle-eastern conservatism makes Dubai an ideal setting for a sort-of-science-fiction thriller, so Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men seems an intriguing prospect. Promising a look under the surface of a modern technological utopia, it sees the Brook family move from their old life in London to a gated community set up for the families of the men brought over to work on Dream World, a vast, sprawling hotel complex offering every luxury for the most wealthy visitors to the country. Once there, the realities of life for Western outsiders start to become clear, with the family fragmenting while dark secrets start coming to light.
It’s a really good setup, and opens well with a bleak introduction to life for the migrant workers drafted in to build this temple to greed and luxury. It soon becomes clear however that this isn’t going to be a balanced, nuanced story taking in multiple angles of approach, with almost the entirety of the book told through the eyes of Lea Brook, leaving little room for her daughter Cara or husband Roy. It’s a fundamental flaw in the book, which focuses so much on Lea and the strange group of creepily subservient wives within the compound that there’s just no development given to any of the other characters. Cara and her friends are generic, stereotypically grumpy teenagers, Roy and the other men are distant, one dimensional sketches, and the two people Lea befriends serve little purpose other than to act as disposable plot devices.
As for the plot itself, it’s hard to know what Fowler is trying to do with it. For large parts of the book it rambles aimlessly, not quite sure whether to focus on the Brook family tearing itself apart amid half baked east-west and rich-poor commentary or the disappointingly predictable mystery surrounding the disappearance of migrant workers and unexplained deaths of westerners in and around the compound. When it does finally pick up speed towards the end it turns into a bizarre semi-mythical conspiracy that appears out of nowhere with nothing in the way of explanation or justification elsewhere in the plot. There’s no emotional weight to what happens, no connection to the characters, and when the book suddenly ends there’s no real conclusion or attempt to wrap things up and make a point.
Frustratingly, all the problems with the book make it easy to overlook the rather beautiful prose that paints evocative, vivid pictures of the Middle East throughout. It’s a real shame that the standard of plotting and storytelling doesn’t match the author’s clear ability to deliver attractive, descriptive writing. With unsympathetic characters and a contrived, dull plot the only real redeeming feature is the setting itself, which feels real, tangible and lifelike. Dubai comes across beautifully, but it’s style over substance. Unintentionally ironic, all told.