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THE ROAD TO FEZ by Ruth Knafo Setton

THE ROAD TO FEZ

By Ruth Knafo Setton

Pub Date: March 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-58243-082-9
Publisher: Counterpoint

Like the heroine of her first novel, Setton was born in Morocco but raised in the States. Her command of the setting, though, suggests that Morocco has stayed with her deep-down inside.

After her mother’s death, 18-year-old Brit decides to return to the family home in Morocco. She has come there to play out two obsessions, one with a 19th-century Jewish martyr, Suleika, who was executed in Fez for refusing to renounce her faith, the other with her handsome, worldly uncle, Gaby. At the outset, Brit is already plotting with servants and some of the family to cast a spell on this 30-year-old womanizer. All she needs to do is steal some of his underwear. Regrettably, neither Brit, who narrates the first half here alone, nor Setton seems to see the humor in this predicament; but this comes as no great shock in a book that takes itself so seriously that it reaches the point of self-parody. Interposed with Brit’s family dilemma are different versions of Suleika’s story, in which she’s depicted as everything from a martyr to a slut. Then, in a stunning and surprisingly effective coup de theatre, Setton shifts narrative voices to Gaby’s point-of-view, and for the remaining pages, with varying effectiveness, the narrative alternates between the two protagonists. Although it wants desperately to be a serious rumination on deracination and the secrets of identity, the novel remains burdened with its sexual preoccupations. As its central characters edge closer to an inevitable liaison, the writing, already ornately descriptive, becomes unbearably overheated, sometimes downright ludicrous. Yet Setton is not untalented. She has a sophisticated eye and nose for the intoxicating, almost suffocating atmosphere of Morocco, and, from a purely technical standpoint, her play with viewpoint is skilled.

Desperately uneven, but this first-time author may well be, even so, a voice worth hearing again.