I noticed The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty being talked about recently on Twitter by someone whose taste I admire. The title seemed familiar and I wish I could tell you that it was because it’s from one of Rumi’s poems – revealed half-way through the novel – but I have to admit it was already on my ‘to be reviewed’ shelves. Anyway, @elizabethmoya was quite right. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s compelling novel takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next and keeping us thoroughly entertained along the way.
As soon as she spots that her anonymous black backpack has been snatched, our nameless protagonist knows she should have heeded her guidebook: ‘the first thing you should do upon arrival in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca’. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. She takes herself off to an up-market hotel, noticing a film crew outside and a ‘famous American actress’. So starts an adventure that will see her standing in for the actress, meeting Patti Smith, dining with a rich Russian businessman and coming slap-bang up against what is fast becoming her old life, leaving a trail of names, lies and half-truths in her wake.
Just as I was remembering The Sheltering Sky with its altogether darker story of an American whose passport goes missing in North Africa, a cab-driver asks our protagonist if she’s heard of Paul Bowles but Vida’s tale is far from brooding. Told in the second person which takes a little getting used to, it’s often very funny – sometimes dryly so, sometimes almost farcical. Our protagonist’s brush with stardom is particularly nicely handled with some sharp fun poked at celebrity. Small details of her past leak into the narrative until all is revealed towards the end: the last piece of the jigsaw wasn’t a surprise but it’s well done. Vida makes her readers squirm as our protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies, expecting her to be found out at every turn. If some of her adventures seem a little improbable they’re so well drawn that I forgave Vida. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining read and I see there’s a backlist to explore.